“Study the past if you would define the future.”-Confucius

I’ve often joked that enjoying the study of history is like learning to like caviar—it’s an acquired taste. It takes time to get past the perception that history is little more than the dry memorization of dates, names, and events. But once you do, it can be a truly inspiring and mind-opening experience!

For me, the study of history began with the search for identity. This, more than intellectual interest, was what drew me. My parents were committed Christians. In fact, my dad was a pastor and church planter who helped spawn several Chinese congregations in New York City. In the New York of the 1970s and 1980s, I grew up with an acute sense of marginalization. Though the Chinese population was growing rapidly, we always felt invisible. In most of our churches, the English-speaking, or American-born Chinese population was a minority—usually the children of immigrants. But larger gatherings of English-speaking Chinese Christians such as the Eastern Chinese Bible Conferences and Sports for Christ basketball tournaments were very important communities for shaping my identity as a youth and young adult. They helped me feel like I was part of something bigger than my small church fellowship. While we all knew about the Chinese Lutherans and Episcopalians, they were a small minority compared to churches such as Trust in God Baptist, Grace Faith, Chinese Evangel Mission, Conservative Baptist, Church of the Living Lord, Chinese Alliance, Ling Liang Tong, or Overseas Chinese Mission. Yes, there were Chinese Presbyterians and Methodists, but the prevailing theological culture was a fundamentalist evangelicalism shaped by tensions between its Reformed and Dispensational wings. Hardly any of the English-speaking Chinese Christians I grew up with were Pentecostal or charismatic—both of which were looked upon with grave suspicion.  By the time I left New York City in 1994, the number of Chinese churches with a sizable English-speaking population had grown from less than a dozen to almost fifty. I’m sure that New York’s Chinese American evangelical culture had changed and become less separatist, but I felt very ambivalent about my identification with that culture, nevertheless.

You see, in college I was introduced to a world that reached broader than the fundamentalist evangelical Chinese network I grew up in. New York University’s InterVarsity (IV) Christian Fellowship, with which our campus Chinese Christian Fellowship affiliated, was more open to intellectual inquiry and mainline Protestantism. After receiving the call to ministry at IV’s Urbana missions conference, I started to explore my church’s denomination. Like most mainline Protestant churches, the American Baptists had both conservative and liberal members.

I never felt any pressure to repudiate my evangelical upbringing, but was fascinated by the breadth of Christian thought and practice in this new setting. The American Baptists introduced me to an ethnic and racial diversity I had never before experienced. Indeed, the American Baptists of New York City were dominated by African Americans (with rapid growth among Hispanics). They also connected me to non-Chinese Asian American Baptists vis-a-vis the Asian American Baptist Caucus. There I met, for the first time, English-speaking Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and other Asian leaders. I was deeply impressed by such articulate and wise Asian Americans within my denomination as well as in other mainline denominations. All the most well-spoken Asian Americans I respected came from the West Coast. And everyone was passionate about economic, racial, and gender justice. So I enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in New York City where these concerns were integrated into faith and where I received the best theological education I could imagine. Again, I was encouraged to broaden my worldview without repudiating my evangelical convictions. It felt like heaven and I wanted more.

But it was also at Union where I was first challenged to explore and explain who I was. I felt a growing dissonance between who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. Very few of the Chinese American Christians I grew up related their faith to social justice or their ethnic  or racial identities. Truthfully, it was not until college when I began to think about these things either—especially as they related to ministry, mission, and theology.

It boiled down to this: How could I adequately participate in God’s kingdom movement without a good understanding of my identity? All I knew was that I was raised in a small, isolated, invisible, marginalized, and seemingly backward Chinese American evangelical ghetto. I began to resent it.

The professors at Union Seminary came to my rescue. To these, I would add Randy Balmer, a specialist in American Evangelicalism who taught at Barnard College at the time. The church history department, in particular, invited me to consider the study of history as a way to better understand my Chinese American Christian identity. So when I entered their Ph.D. program, I chose the study of the history of Christianity over biblical and theological studies.

History helped explain why today’s Chinese American Christians avoid identifying with mainline American denominations such as Presbyterians, Methodists, and to a lesser degree, Baptists. Before 1970, most Chinese American Christians were part of these denominations. In the 1950s and 1960s, an impressive cadre of leaders with ties to Cameron House in San Francisco were nurtured in the Presbyterian church. Many became pastors of Chinese and non-Chinese Presbyterian congregations. A number also became leaders in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA), now called the PCUSA.

But since the 1965 Immigration Act opened the doors for much greater immigration from Asia, waves of immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, and later, mainland China, transformed Chinese Christianity in the U.S. Because most of their leaders from the Chinese diaspora were the fruits of indigenous Christian revivals, their style of Christianity took on these characteristics. According to historian Lian Xi, a popularist Christianity that was stridently anti-Western, strikingly independent, separatist, fundamentalist, charismatic, and somewhat apocalyptic had emerged in China in the 1930s (see Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China, 2010). This type of Christianity flourished among the underground church in communist China and eventually became the dominant expression of Christianity in the Chinese diaspora (although some of its most charismatic expressions diminished a bit in mid-century, but is seemingly on the rise again).

By the 1980s, Chinese American Christianity reflected this style. Consequently, Americanized Chinese Americans like myself (and younger recent immigrants) often rubbed up against what we considered theological “shallowness,” cultural ghettoization, and social non-engagement in Chinese churches. Understanding what we don’t like about our inherited identity lead to a desire to transform it into something we thought would be more positive.

This can also be said of the role of women in American evangelicalism. In Margaret Lamberts Bendroth’s Fundamentalism and Gender: 1875 to the Present (1993), she argues that American evangelicals in the 1940s inherited fundamentalist interpretations of gender in the Bible. Thus, they have tended to assume that the Bible subordinates women to men. Fundamentalism, in fact, promoted a conservative interpretation on gender in reaction to a powerful women’s missionary movement in the 19th century, woman’s suffrage, and the change in women’s roles in society in the 1920s. All of these changes, including theological liberalism, the social gospel, and scientific evolution, were perceived as direct challenges to the male-dominated fundamentalist leadership.  Knowing that women’s subordination is, in part, a product of fundamentalist backlash rather than a core tenet of biblical truth opens up the possibility that women do not have to be subordinate.   This was the discovery made by a generation of progressive evangelicals in the 1970s [see Pamela D. H. Cochran, Evangelical Feminism: A History (2005)].

So again, studying history can help us understand how we became who we are today. Furthermore, knowing our past also opens up the possibility that we can change things in the future. According to Sidney E. Mead, “History, in brief, is an analysis of the past in order that we may understand the present and guide our conduct into the future.” Adolf von Harnack once said, “We study history in order to intervene in the course of history.”  And Oscar Wilde penned this: “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.”

Understanding my identity in order to change the future became my calling. To quote Martin Luther King Jr. “History has thrust something upon me from which I cannot turn away.”


Dr. Timothy Tseng, Pastor, former Professor of Religious History
Tim has done research in Chinese American Christianity, Asian American studies, and the history of race in the United States. Tim was also the founding Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (2005-2011). He currently is the Pastor of English Ministries at Canaan Taiwanese Christian Church in San Jose, CA. timtseng.net, @tim_tseng

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