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We’ve asked Tim Tseng, a historian and pastor, to guide us Asian American evangelicals through the intersections of Asia America, Asian American Studies and the Asian American Movement and Asian American Christians. This is one interview of five related to Asian America and Asian American Christians.
What Asian American Studies misses about Asian American Christians, especially before 1965
Many people are not aware of the extent that Asian American Christian were engaged in their communities in the 1960s. When Asian Americanists saw some empowerment from Christian churches, perhaps the prevailing view was that “religion was an opiate for the masses.” Can you tell us a little bit more about Asian American Christian involvement pre-1965?
Asian Americans have been activists for quite a while. The surprising thing that has not been highlighted is that historically, it’s been the Asian American Christians (or those who grew up in churches) who were among the most outspoken leaders of community activism. In part, it was because they were the ones who were the most capable of speaking to the wider Christian population. They were part of missionary and denominational networks, and they could leverage those networks. As a result, Asian American Christians had the advantage of being able to speak more so than non-Christians.
When they started to get a sense of what it means to be American, and what it means to fight for one’s individual rights, Asian American Christians were the first to embrace that and do something about it. They often saw it as their distinct Christian identity one that contrasted somewhat to their non-Christian Asian backgrounds: they were individualistic, but felt compelled to fight and speak for their communities.
Because their Asian background didn’t encourage them to speak out?
Well, that’s a stereotype. I don’t think their “Asianness” discouraged activism, but Christians had an advantage. They had people to engage with. Most of the Christians learned English through mission schools. So they had better ability to speak into the American context than, say, a Buddhist who couldn’t understand English or American culture.
Did other religious groups have activists?
Other religious groups had activists too, but they were not able to be as heard as clearly, because they couldn’t communicate as effectively and didn’t participate in influential networks.
Why were Christians so successful compared to Buddhists for example?
Another factor is that Christian communities were organized differently than other religious communities. Japanese Buddhism in fact tried to emulate Christianity because the ethnic component of organizing along Christian lines was far more effective in the U.S. context than the traditional Buddhist way of community building. Buddhists didn’t really organize into communities. Temples are on on the margins of community—at the center is the family. The families have their own shrine, and if they want to do anything, they would go to the temples, and then go back home. The temple thus was not a place to organize communities like churches; families, villages those were the most common gathering points. So when you transplant that to America, you have to change, because you are no longer as family-based. Chinese had their family associations, that was another way that they organized. But not everyone fit into the family association. [Not everyone was family.] Christians were a tertiary group of people who had ties to family associations but also brought in a lot of outcasts. And when the second generation was born, the second generation did not really identify with their family associations as much. The churches became a home for them. So sociologically, this was the another explanation for greater social engagement among Christians.
When did Asian Christians in America start speaking out?
Asian American activism started when Christians started to fight for the rights of Asians in America at far back as the 1860s. William Speer, who planted the Chinese Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, was very involved in justifying the reason for a Chinese church. He and a number of fellow Chinese in his church spoke about public issues such as racially discriminatory laws that were being passed at the time. Methodist missionary Otis Gibson (1826-1889) was one of the most outspoken defenders of the Chinese in San Francisco. Charles McClain’s In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America (1994), a rigorous study that looked into legal claims and issues raised by Chinese Americans, showed that there was a strong connection of involvement by churches and missionary societies and missionaries. San Francisco in particular was passing ordinances that were discriminatory. There were health ordinances because they thought Chinese people were bringing diseases. In addition to restrictions on ownership, a Chinese person couldn’t buy property and her kids couldn’t go to the local public schools. There were all kinds of codes that were directed towards the Chinese.
Joshua Paddison, also highlights Chinese Christian activism, in American Heathens (2008). This photo [on the book’s cover] is of Rev. Lee Gam, one of the most outspoken activist-pastors of the time. He preached about racial equality.
These Christians saw activism in defense of the Chinese as part of their evangelical calling. They didn’t just save souls, but sought to impact society, too. It was a pre-fundamentalism, post-millennial theology. Evangelicals then believed that what they did on earth mattered.
What about the other main Asian group in American pre-1965, the Japaneses? Were Japanese Christians involved in activism?
Japanese Christian activism has yet to be studied thoroughly. The Chinese were more urban, more connected to missionaries and therefore, more vocal. There’s not as much about Japanese activism until World War II—but even then, there was a strong church connection. The JACL (Japanese American Citizen’s League) and the people who formed JEMS (Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society) were all somewhat connected to each to other. Largely, this was due to the internment camp experience. As a result, nisei [or second-generation] Christians knew that they had to fight for their civil rights—often in partnership with secular or Buddhist nisei.
Any last comments on Asian American Christians pre-1965?
The one last thing I want to say in case it wasn’t clear. When I talk about the pre-65 history, it’s always important to bear in mind that even though Christians then would identify themselves as evangelical, they would never use that word. They were theologically evangelical—perhaps a better word would be the one favored by [retired PCUSA executive] Wesley Woo: “Christo-centric.” But they were also very much influenced by the mainline church’s mission to engage the community with social justice. I think it’s important to stress that.
One of the main reasons why we don’t know anything about them is that our generation of evangelicals doesn’t know anything about the mainline church, except for stereotypes of them being liberal. But if we are willing to plumb that history a little bit more and investigate, then we’ll get a healthier perspective of our history. To that end, I’m currently researching the 30 or so Chinese Americans Presbyterians who grew up in the 1960s and became significant and influential leaders not only among the Chinese churches, but also in the Presbyterian denomination and wider U.S. society.
This was the norm then right? Evangelicals before fundamentalism in the 1920s were engaged in society and the public sphere.
Yes, they were. For the first two thirds of the 19th century, American evangelicals had good reason to feel confident that their engagement in society was ushering in a Christian America. The missionary movement, social reform, voluntary societies, and revivalism all emerged as powerful forces after the first disestablishment of Christianity in America (i.e., when church and state were separated).
But that confidence was shattered after the Civil War. Evangelicals were deeply over different visions about slavery and racial equality, the industrial revolution, urbanization, rise of scientific authority and higher criticism, non-Protestant immigration, and Protestant accommodation to a growing affluent class—in short, modernity—further divided evangelicals. By the turn of the century, conservative evangelicals turned away from postmillennialism and rejected the transformations in American society. The growth of premillennialism, dispensationalism, Reformed fundamentalism, the Holiness and Pentecostal movements were all different reactions to modernity in America.
When World War I destroyed confidence in the moral superiority of Western civilization, an evangelical Protestantism that was [once] so confident about establishing a Christian American was shaken to its core. The conservatives shared a desire to disengage from “the world” in order to remain pure and faithful to a more traditional understanding of faith. Modernist groups continued to engage modernity with a willingness to adjust orthodox Christian beliefs to accommodate the new reality. A much larger group sought to remain true to orthodox beliefs while continuing to engage the modern world. The latter remained in mainline Protestant denominations.
But the fundamentalists left and formed their own organizations. Twentieth-century evangelicalism was born out of these organizations. The next generation included well known leaders such as Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, and Carl Henry. This new evangelicalism wanted to re-engage American culture, but always has had to wrestle with a strong “separatist” impulse within.
To bring this to full circle then: Pre-1960s Asian American Protestants were more deeply connected to mainline Protestant denominations. As such, both evangelical and liberal wings influenced these Christians. But they shared the assumption that social engagement was central to Christian discipleship. Post-1960s Asian Americans Christians related better to the new evangelicalism in 20th century America. Thus, they inherited the same tensions between separatists and cultural engagers.
This is not a strict transcript of the conversation. While preserving as much of the interviewee’s voice as possible, this interview has been edited for clarity.
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