A New Jesus

Daryl Ireland

In 1910, the world’s sixth Sunday School Convention met in Washington, D.C. for six days to discuss “The In 1910, the world’s sixth Sunday School Convention met in Washington, D.C. for six days to discuss “The Sunday-school and the Great Commission.” The focus was to be on a “new version of Christ, who died to save the entire world” (World-wide Sunday School Work 415-416). To that end, the convention featured a missionary exposition that offered participants a chance to see and be inspired by a Jesus who redeemed all the children of the world. The thousands of viewers who filed through the National Rifles’ Armory, sometime between 9 am and 8 pm that week, got a glimpse of all kinds of artifacts and mementos from around the world—tokens that bespoke of Jesus’ capacity to embrace even the most exotic man, woman, and child. Visitors were also given an image of Jesus and the Nations from the Sunday School Times Company. The organization had commissioned O.A. Stemler to paint a picture that would capture the spirit of the Sunday School / Mission Convention: a new portrait of Christ that conveyed his love and concern for every child in the world (Brewer 109). This post will explore the transnational enchantment with this new depiction of Jesus Christ, and look at how its meaning morphed as it moved from Washington to London, back to Philadelphia, and finally to Shanghai.

The first stop is in London. The same year as the Sunday School Convention, Basil Matthews became the editorial secretary for the London Missionary Society. Tasked with overseeing News from Afar, the society’s publication for children, Matthews tracked down Harold Copping, the beloved British painter of biblical scenes, and asked him if he could “gather up the missionary spirit of Christianity into a single picture that would appeal … to boys and girls” (Brewer, 108). Copping, to whom he seems to have shown or described Stemler’s picture, instantly grasped the appeal of Jesus “in the midst of a group of children of different races,” and managed to complete his own version, Hope of the World, in 1915 (Brewer 108).

In keeping with his fame for authenticity, Copping relied on photographs and costumes that the London Missionary Society supplied. He used clothes and pictures sent by missionaries in the fields where the LMS was strongest. Materials from India, China, Africa, and Polynesia gave his efforts a kind of realism, even if they did not prevent anachronisms, such as the Chinese boy wearing a queue—a hairstyle, which by 1915, was seen in China as a relic of the imperial past that had ended in 1911.

Here was a painting that captured the LMS’s aim. Basil Matthews wanted a picture that could speak to children about the importance of missions. He got more than he ever expected. Hope of the World was a commercial success. Sunday Schools around the United Kingdom picked it up and used it to promote missions, and young Sunday School scholars could earn their own copy to hang in their homes if they attended Sunday School regularly enough, memorized enough Scripture, or in some other way qualified to receive the prize. In this way, Hope of the World became the most common image of Jesus circulating in the United Kingdom in the first half of the twentieth century (Brewer 99). Millions of copies were produced, and they carried not only a message about Jesus, but also a mandate for missions.

Like in Stemler’s version, Copping’s Jesus welcomes different children from around the world. But Copping narrowed the focus, and thereby heightened the emotional intensity. This is no longer a pastoral scene in which Jesus and various children meet. This is a picture of Jesus hugging children—his arms, which extend almost the entire the width of the canvas, squeeze the kids together in an all-encompassing embrace. Copping’s picture promises Jesus’ love and tangible presence, which, for many, made the print worth the price of Sunday School attendance or Bible memorization.

Copping’s picture carried a second message. It was more subtle, but no less real. Children in the UK had a missionary task. Look at the eyes of the children. Who are they looking at? All of them are gazing at Jesus except for one. The blonde girl, the stand-in for European kids, is looking at the other children. It is as if she is the co-host of this gathering, the daughter who is welcoming the others into the warmth of her father’s love.

Whether children in the UK grasped the missionary-mandate of the painting or not, adults understood the lesson. They worked this picture into Sunday School curricula with clear instructions: “It is not intended that ‘The Hope of the World’ picture shall be shown until four separate Talks and Stories have been given about the different children in the picture” (Brewer 112). Notice, four talks about four children, because the fifth child—the girl in the blue dress—was not included. The goal was to help children in the UK understand their role in inviting everyone into Jesus’ loving embrace.

When Sunday School Talks and Stories reached their climax on the fifth Sunday, the lesson was historical. The Bible verses selected spoke of Jesus blessing the children (cf. Mt. 19:13-29 and parallels). Yet, the image itself was clearly not something from the first-century. It was eschatological. In News from Afar junior readers were told that “the artist painted that picture because he thought that some day all the children of the world would come to know and love [Jesus]…and be friends with one another. Some day we know the picture will come true” (Brewer 112).

Hope of the World shows Jesus bodily present at his return. When Copping wanted to depict Jesus as he is experienced now—a real, but invisible presence—he painted Christ very differently. For example, in 1916, Copping produced A Medical Missionary Attending a Sick African. In that picture, Jesus was ethereal—almost ghostly. Why? Because Jesus has ascended into heaven and is no longer bodily present on earth. He is now made manifest through someone like the missionary doctor. Only in historical or eschatological paintings did Jesus appear solid, a warm-blooded man.

Hope of the World, then, was a depiction of Jesus at his return. It portrayed eschatological internationalism. The Great War, which was tearing the world apart in 1915, was the contemporary global reality. Hope of the World promised it was temporary. Missions, the pictured suggested, could beat swords into plough shares, and missions could bring the nations of the world around Jesus in worldwide friendship.

Stemler’s new Jesus for the nations now had a helper. Copping and the LMS altered the picture so that missions—specifically, European missions—could aid in bringing the New Heaven to earth.

In the United States, the extraordinary success of Copping’s painting, prompted some enterprising Christians to crop Stemler’s original work. It was modified, and resold in a format that could capitalize on Hope of the World’s popularity. The alternation did not change the theological vision, but it did exploit the emotional potential. The warmth and love of Jesus became far more evident.

The modification may have increased sales, but it also made Stemler’s work susceptible to the same criticisms that beset Copping’s painting. First, critics found the wildly popular Hope of the World artistically insubstantial. Sunday School scholars in the UK were being indulged with a saccharine Jesus. Was Christianity now only selling sentimentality? Second, there was wide-spread concern about the depiction of the African child. He, alone, sat on the ground out of the reach of Jesus. The painting suggested a racial hierarchy, which—if true—would undermine the very message the two paintings were trying to convey. Finally, putting children on Jesus’ lap made the Savior look entirely too effeminate. Both Jesus and the Nations and Hope of the World acted as stumbling blocks to those who were trying to vivify a vigorous, modern, and muscular Lord. Be that as it may, audiences were enthralled by the “new version of Christ,” and he appeared in various places around the globe.

In 1926, Chinese Christians were eager for a new Christ. They had been an embattled minority since the anti-Christian movement erupted in 1922. For four years, they had been the favorite targets of national animosity. They were accused of being running dogs for the imperialists and traitors to the state. The old aphorism, “One more Christian, one less Chinese,” took on an especially political tone as China had dissolved from one Republic into competing warlord states. At that point, it was an open question if China and the Chinese would even survive. In that atmosphere, to be charged as being Christian rather than Chinese, became more than a cultural indictment. It was an attack on a person’s patriotism.

The Phonetic Promotion Committee commissioned a new poster in the context of anti-Christian rhetoric: The Five Peoples of China for Christ. The China Continuation Committee, which was started after the World Missionary Conference in 1910 to coordinate Protestant missionary efforts, organized the Phonetic Promotion Committee in 1919 to encourage the use of the national government’s new phonetic symbols, called zhuyin zimu. Excited by the possibility of accelerating literacy, the Phonetic Promotion Committee standardized the government’s zhuyin system, worked out typographical arrangements for printing the new symbols, printed materials and posters to be used for teaching, and rather quickly managed to publish the entire New Testament using the phonetic script.

Peter Chuan, was the secretary. He had graduated from Hartford Seminary in the United States before moving to France to work with the YMCA during WWI, teaching Chinese soldiers how to read and write so they could communicate with home. He was assisted by the likes of E.G. Tewksbury, the head of the China Sunday School Union, and Cheng Jingyi, whom London Missionary Society churches in China had financed to attend the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh.

Whether it was through Cheng’s connection to the LMS, Tewksbury’s network in the Sunday School movement, or through some third channel, the Phonetic Promotion Committee was familiar with Hope of the World, and they printed their own version of it at a fortuitous moment (Phonetic Promotion Committee). The poster hit the market in 1926 right as Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist army, buoyed by such things as the nationalism of the anti-Christian movement, marched north to reunite the fragmented country.

The Five Peoples of China for Christ was a reproduction of Hope of the World, but its messaging underwent significant changes. The Phonetic Promotion Committee was not presenting a Jesus for the Nations, but a Jesus for the Nation, a Jesus for China—more specifically, a Jesus for the Republic of China.

Both Hope of the World and The Five Peoples of China for Christ were used to promote missions. The Phonetic Promotion Committee listed this poster as one of its Missionary Posters. But who, in the Chinese poster, was the missionary? In some ways it is hard to tell, for the artist of the Chinese poster lacked the technical talent of Copping. The emotional content of the original is lost, as Jesus’ eyes—along with the eyes of the children—seem to all look past one another. However, the mountain in the background, the placement of the children, the lighting, and the like, all clearly suggest that the artist was doing his or her best to reproduce the original. Thus, the child of God—the missionary of the group—would be the boy in red. He is not European, of course, but Han Chinese. The Han were the largest ethnic group in China and, among those pictured, had the highest percentage of Christians, so they were portrayed as the group responsible to reach the others.

Be that as it may, the Han were not really the most Christian group in China. The Lahu or the Miao in southwestern China, for example, had experienced large-scale conversions in the early 20th century and numerous villages had converted en masse (Covell). They were the Chinese ethnic groups that had the highest percentage of Christians, and would have, therefore, been most analogous to the “Christianized” European girl in the original. But, in fact, neither Miao nor the Lahu even appear in this poster. For this poster was never a religious representation of China’s ethnic groups, with the most Christian reaching out to the least. It was a portrayal of the politically defined races of the modern Chinese nation-state.

Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary and ideologue behind China’s Xinhai Revolution of 1911, which toppled the Qing dynasty, argued that, in order to survive, China needed to tie its races together. He may have initially despised the Qing dynasty and its Manchu rulers, but his virulent hatred for the Manchus was replaced by pragmatic expediency after the revolution. In the Republic of China, politicians could not afford to pit Manchus against Han Chinese. In fact, everyone—Manchus, Tibetans, Mongols, Hui, and the Han—needed to join together to create one modern nation state:

in spite of four hundred million people gathered together in one China, we are in fact but a sheet of loose sand. We are the poorest and weakest state in the world, occupying the lowest position in international affairs; the rest of mankind is the carving knife and the serving dish, while we are the fish and meat…. If we do not earnestly promote nationalism and weld together our four hundred millions into a strong nation, we face a tragedy–the loss of our country and the destruction of our race (Sun 12).

He therefore promoted racial harmony, signaling national unity in the Republic of China’s new flag. Red was to represent the Han, yellow the Manchu, blue the Mongolian, white the Hui, and black the Tibetans. Five races united in one nation. That color scheme and racial identity got mapped onto the figures in the poster perfectly.

The idea of unity and equality among all five ethnic groups accounts for another adjustment in this poster. The Tibetan girl reclines rather comfortably on a rock, elevated from the African child’s original position on the ground. It is a small change, but an honest effort to avoid degrading any one group in the picture.

One of the biggest changes in the Chinese poster is the portrait of Jesus. He is not the solid, warm-blooded Christ of history, nor the eschatological Christ who is physically present with us at his return. Instead the artist chose to paint Jesus as Copping did when he wanted to capture his real but invisible presence with us now. This ghostly Jesus, has an important message to viewers: although he may not be visibly present, Christ is even now drawing China together. As the only adult in the painting, he is the tutor who is raising the nation to political maturity. Unlike Hope of the World, this is not a picture of eschatological internationalism. This is a portrait of political nationalism, right now.

The apologetic dimension of this poster, the argument that Jesus (and Christians) are on the side of nationalism, overwhelms all the other messages embedded in the image. Probably most interesting is they way that the strong patriotic agenda complicates the stated missionary aim.

Why, for example, does the Tibetan girl on the far left still carry her Buddhist prayer wheel? Does she still spin it and recite her mantra, even though she has now turned to Christ? In 1926, no member of the Phonetic Promotion Committee was considering dual religious-belonging. The best explanation is that the prayer wheel was put into the picture because it helped identify the Tibetan race. Unfortunately, the racial marker was a symbol of Buddhism and therefore makes this poster theologically incoherent.

The matter is only compounded by the Hui child in white. In China, the Hui are not actually a different ethnic group. They are a religious group. The Hui are China’s Muslims. When Christians accepted the conflation of religion and race, it produced a thorny problem. What were the Hui when they converted to Christ? The artist never bothered to answer that question. In fact, he or she never had to.

In the end, the Phonetic Promotion Committee did not produce a new Jesus who could embrace the whole world. Instead, it generated a Savior who could deflect anti-Christian rhetoric and inspire a new generation of Chinese Christian nationalists. Its political message was far more poignant and powerful than any religion coding it sought to instill. Here was Jesus for 1926, a Jesus who embraced the Nationalist party’s push to reintegrate a fragmented nation.

Sources

Brewer, Sandy. “From the Darkest England to the Hope of the World: Protestant Pedagogy and the Visual Culture of the London Missionary Society.” Material Religion 1, vol 1. (January 2005): 99-122.

Phonetic Promotion Committee Records. Series 1, Box 2, Folder 8. The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Sun Yat-sen. San Min Chu I, The Three Principles of the People. Edited by L.T. Chen. Translated by Frank W. Price. (Shanghai: China Committee, Institute of Pacific Relations, 1927).

“World-Wide Sunday School Work and the World’s Sunday School Convention at Washington D.C.” Missionary Review of the World 32, no. 6. (June 1909): 415-416.

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