Another Perspective

Methodist Madame

An overlooked achievement of the late first lady of China, Madame Chiang Kai-shek. 

By 11.23.09

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Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong May-ling), once First Lady of China, regally performed on the global stage across 75 years until dying at age 106 in 2003. Her latest biography, The Last Empress, by Hannah Pakula, debuted this month. Madame's marriage and political partnership with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek elevated her into the ranks of Churchill and FDR during World War II as her nation resisted Japanese occupation. During the Cold War, the U.S. educated celebrity would become an icon of resistance to communism. Her flamboyant visits to America, accompanied by a retinue of servants and a wardrobe of silks, commanded a joint session of Congress, rallies at the Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden, and national radio broadcasts.

Like Laura Tyson Li's recent biography, Pakula's book surmises that Madame may have had an affair with Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, whose presidency would have allowed them jointly to "rule the rule," she supposedly believed. True or not, Madame was charming, captivating, ruthless, and shrewd. Whatever her personal morals, she was the beneficiary of classic American Protestant idealism about China. A Methodist who helped convert her powerful husband to Christianity, Madame persuaded American church prelates that a century of Protestant missions in China had finally reached fruition in their rule.

China under the Chiangs never had more than a few million Christians. But today, even after 60 years of communist rule, China has over 100 million Christians and ranks as perhaps the world's third largest Christian nation after the U.S. and Brazil. Autocratic and largely free-market oriented, modern China in many ways more resembles what Madame and her husband represented than the vision of their nemesis and ostensible victor, Mao Zedong. In 1951, China's new communist rulers compelled the Methodist pastor who had first baptized Chiang in 1930 to expel him from the church in a "public denunciation rally" attended by a coerced crowd of 10,000 Chinese Christians. 

That pastor, since having become a Methodist bishop, reportedly confessed to his "grave mistake" in having baptized Chiang, while also expelling Madame. Other Chinese Protestant ministers denounced "American imperialists" and "counter-revolutionary" missionaries, while supposedly demanding severe punishment for recalcitrant church leaders deemed Chiang's special agents. The communists eventually shut down all the Protestant denominations and folded them into a single government controlled church, while also creating a puppet Catholic Church. This ploy backfired, as house churches arose across China, even as Christians were being shipped to internment camps during the Cultural Revolution's most depraved stages.

The murderous calamity of a Maoist China was unforeseen by progressive American Protestants, who had envisioned a seamlessly bright future of American dominance, global democracy, and Christian evangelization. Madame's father became a Methodist at the near height of American Protestant confidence in the late 19th century, after service as a ship's cabin boy took him to North Carolina. His brand of southern Methodism instilled in Madame's family an aversion to strong drink, cards, and dancing. It also emphasized education, and Madame attended Wesleyan College in Georgia and later Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

Madame's strong-willed mother insisted that Chiang, a Buddhist, convert to Methodism before marrying her daughter. The rising President of China's Nationalist republic told her he would ponder the faith, and after reading and meditation, consented to baptism in Shanghai by the southern branch of U.S. Methodism. "I feel the need of a God such as Jesus Christ," he reportedly explained. American churches and missionaries were thrilled, while Chinese traditionalists were distressed, though the founder of the Chinese Republic, Sun Yat-sen, had also been a Christian. In 1930, a Methodist college president celebrated that Chiang was surrounded by "progressive Christians," noting that 6 of his 11 cabinet ministers were Christians.

In 1937, after Chiang was released from a brief captivity by opponents, he and his wife wrote several columns for the New York Times and others about how Christianity sustained them. In a message to Asian Methodists, Chiang likened his suffering to Christ's: ""In this strange predicament I distinctly recalled the forty days and nights Christ passed in the wilderness withstanding temptation, His prayers in the garden of Gethsemane and the indignities heaped upon Him at His trial." The Chiangs sometimes employed the U.S. Methodist Church to transmit messages to the American people, as in 1938, when their Christmas message predicted that "high moral standards" become "accomplished fact" there would be "no more war."

Before Pearl Harbor, in 1941, when China had already been at war with Japan for years, the Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. hosted a rally for local Chinese to honor China's resistance to occupation and to bow before portraits of Chiang. Madame sent her personal greetings, as did Methodist bishops and Time magazine founder Henry Luce, a long-time Chiang fan. After America had entered the war, Madame visited the U.S. in 1943 to rapturous acclaim. While in Washington, D.C. to meet with FDR, she worshipped at historic Foundry Methodist Church with Vice President Henry Wallace.

Foundry's minister, who was also chaplain of the U.S. Senate, referred to the Chiangs as "two great servants of God and humanity," whose "lives are as candles of the Lord," whom we are "proud to think of as fellow Methodists, inspiring examples of the zeal and devotion to which our world-wide church is summoned," and "God-sent Christian leaders in the global struggle to make men free." Obviously no pacifist, the minister implored for China: "Let us put weapons in her hand so she may hurl the invader from her land and there build a city of God."

The Chiangs sent greetings to the governing General Conference of the U.S. Methodist Church in 1944, thanking America as a "comrade-in-arms, able and willing to put the greatest potential power existent in the world into battle for right dealings." At war's end, the Chiangs donated their 100-acre estate outside Chungking to the Methodist Church as a school and home for war orphans. Of course, the property, with the rest of China, soon fell to the communists. In 1948, Madame again was in Washington, appealing for further U.S. aid, and she returned to Foundry Church. The minister remained supportive, hailing her as "one of the most distinguished Methodists in the world," and saluting the "patient sacrifices of her nation" in its "present struggle" with the "same sinister system which threatens China and is reaching out to control Asia in plotting the final overthrow of every nation governed by the people, by the people and for the people." He urged confronting communism with "militant democracy purged of its betrayals and denials and which actually practices the sacredness of the individual." A stained glass window at Foundry Church commemorating FDR's "Four Freedoms" purportedly includes a likeness of Madame with her words urging a "better world."

When Madame addressed a crowd of 17,000 at Madison Square Garden in 1943, she afterwards met with Methodist bishops, one of whom later called her the "foremost woman of China, perhaps of the world," likened her to Joan of Arc, declared she was "more than a little wonderful," and could not find words to describe her "personality, dress, power, charm…" He finally rhapsodized that he bowed to her "greatness that summons her people not to hate." Fourteen years later, when the same bishop visited her in Taiwan, he still gushed: "Madame Chiang is the same captivating, brilliant, beautiful personality." 

In 1945, even before Japan surrendered, a Methodist bishop and former missionary to China urged President Truman to back the Chiangs against the communists because, in part, Chiang "actively seeks Divine Guidance for the affairs of State." While conservatives and old-style progressive churchmen sided with the Chiangs, new-style leftist church officials romanticized communist rule or at least urged an end to U.S. support for Chiang. The Chiangs' long exile on Taiwan after the 1949 communist victory did not discourage all of their U.S. church friends. After Chiang's death in 1975, Billy Graham fulsomely eulogized him as a faithful Christian at a Washington, D.C. National Cathedral memorial service.

Madame died at her New York home after many years of living in the U.S. Her long-time Methodist pastor in Taiwan delivered a eulogy at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in New York City, declaring: "We are all God's creatures but [Madame] was God's masterpiece." She outlived nearly all her U.S. church supporters who had associated the Chiangs with Christianity and hope for China. Probably few could have foreseen that Christianity eventually would thrive in China despite the defeat of China's Methodist rulers by Maoists who persecuted the churches. Maybe Madame survived long enough to appreciate the irony.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.