The first Mennonites who came to China arrived early in the 20th century. They were missionaries from North America committed to sharing their lives with Chinese interested in cooperating in education,social service and church-related programs.
Missionaries from Mennonite churches did not arrive in China until 1901, when Henry and Nellie Bartel went to western Shandong province. The Bartels were from the Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church, but they went to China without the support of a mission agency. It was not until after they began their work that they formed the China Mennonite Mission Society and were able to solicit support and personnel from Mennonite Brethren-related churches in North America.
Henry and Maria Brown went to China in 1909 under similar circumstances. They began work with the Bartels, but wanted to have the support of the General Conference Mennonite Church, so they moved from Shandong to what is now Henan province. The mission agency then took over administration of the six counties in the Henan-Shandong border area where the Browns and others ministered.
These early Mennonite missionaries focused on rural areas where poverty was great and living conditions difficult. Although they had little training, they opened clinics and provided what medical help they could. They began elementary schools, a high school and training schools for nurses and orphanages. They began churches in county seats and led medical and evangelistic teams to rural villages where they established churches. They provided training for local believers who became Christian and encouraged them to also evangelize and train others. In Shandong there was a very active publishing work.
More than 50 missionaries served in Shandong with the China Mennonite Mission Society. By the time Western missionaries were forced to leave the area because of the Japanese occupation in the early 1940s, there were 56 congregations with almost 1,700 baptized church members. A few missionaries returned after the Anti-Japanese War ended, but with the exception of Loyal Bartel (son of Henry and Nellie), all left western Shandong by 1950. Loyal remained in the area, working as a farmer and evangelist until his death in 1971.
The General Conference Mennonite Church sent more than 30 persons to work in the area just north of the Yellow River and across the border from Shandong Province. They along with the Chinese people among whom they lived suffered through bandit uprisings, warlord battles and severe droughts and floods. At times missionary families were evacuated to larger cities, but they always returned as quickly as possible. In 1940 there were more than 2,200 baptized church members in the six county area.
The Mennonite missionaries emphasized the three-self nature of the Chinese church (self-governing, self-propagating, self-funding), but often found it difficult to give true control of the church to local believers. Some of the most effective work they did was in the area of education, bringing opportunities to impoverished persons in the countryside. Many very effective local believers were trained and they took over administration of the schools and churches and other institutions as best they could given the political upheavals. After 1940 Western missionaries also had to leave this area and there was only sporadic contact after this.
While western Shandong and eastern Henan were the two main centers of Mennonite mission presence, there were also mission ventures in other areas. The Mennonite Brethren supported several persons to work with the Hakka people in Fujian province, and another couple worked in the harsh conditions of Inner Mongolia. In 1940 the Bartels, already in their 70s, moved to western China. Although no churches were started, they and others spent time in northern Sichuan and southern Gansu provinces. They were joined by local believers from Shandong.
The Mennonite Board of Missions sent its first workers to Sichuan in 1947. They were only able to stay a few years before they returned to North America. The Mennonite Central Committee was also quite active in China from 1945 to 1951. MCC supported a variety of relief efforts, including flood prevention along the Yellow River in the Zhengzhou/Kaifeng region. More than 35 North Americans worked with MCC during this time; in addition a number of local believers assisted with feeding stations and the running of an orphanage.
A 1988 publication by Robert and Alice Ruth Ramseyer gives further information on Mennonite missions in China. It is available from CEE.