Asian American Legacy: James Chuck looks to the future of Chinese American churches in the 1970s

Rev. Dr. James Chuck, Th.D.

Rev. Dr. James Chuck, Th.D.

I was honored to participate in a tribute to the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. James Chuck on Feb. 8, 2014 sponsored by ISAAC NorCal. Dr. Chuck was pastor of the First Chinese Baptist Church, San Francisco, for forty years. After his retirement, he had a second twenty-year career as a theological educator at the American Baptist Seminary of the West/Graduate Theological Union. He is one of my favorite mentors and, a hero, in my eyes, of building bridges between mainline Protestants and evangelicals. I’m sure that this will not be the last time I share about James in my Asian American Christian legacy blogs!

Let me first highlight two of Dr. Chuck’s studies that are still available:

1. James is the principle author of the 2008 Bay Area Chinese Church Research project report. You can purchase a copy at:

2. Three volumes of Chinatown Stories of Life and Faith,  oral histories of First Chinese Baptist Church, San Francisco. Here is a description:

chinatown Stories Vol. IIIn 2002, the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco began a project to preserve and share the life stories of persons connected with the church, plus some others from the Chinatown Community. Participants talk about parents, growing up, schooling, marriage and family, work, and faith and values. The stories are contained in three volumes: the first published in 2002, the second in 2008, and Volume III in 2012, with each volume containing about 60 stories. Volume I is no longer available for general distribution, but some copies have been saved out for libraries who may want to purchase a single copy. Collectively, the three volumes, which is illustrated with hundreds of photographs, provides a rich travel trove of stories of Chinese Americans negotiating life in 20th Century America. Copies are available for purchase from First Chinese Baptist Church, 1 Waverly Place, San Francisco, California, 94108. (415) 362-4139. 20.00 per copy; 15.00 per copy for three or more copies.

Now, the historical document!

“Where Are the Chinese Churches Heading in the 1970’s?” is a presentation that James gave to the Chinese Christian Union in early 1970. He shares the findings of a study of Chinese churches in the Bay Area. The study shows that the then current generation of predominantly English-speaking Chinese mainline Protestants were at their peak of spiritual vitality. While he also noted the increasing visibility of Chinese American evangelicalism, he and his peers “did not anticipate the growth of Chinese churches with overseas roots, or the many independent groups that has arisen since.” [James Chuck email, Feb. 24, 2014]

In the second part of his presentation, he offers suggestions about the future direction of Chinese American churches. In retrospect, James was amazingly prescient. He agreed with emergent Chinese American evangelicalism in the 1970s about the centrality of evangelism in congregational life. Indeed, the impressive growth of immigrant and American-born Chinese evangelicalism since 1970 has almost overshadowed the legacy of the earlier generation of mainline Protestant Chinese Americans. Perhaps James anticipated this. Thus, he expressed concern about the loss or negligence of public witness among Chinese American Christians.

As we fast forward thirty years, we witness a new generation of Chinese American evangelicals who are expressing the same concern. Many have left Chinese churches, in part, because few Chinese evangelical church leaders have paid attention to Dr. Chuck’s call for a balanced theology of ministry. – Tim Tseng

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Where Are the Chinese Churches Heading in the 1970’s? 
Rev. James Chuck, Th.D.
Chinese Christian Union of S.F. • Feb. 28, 1970


When we speak of a “Chinese” church, we are speaking of a church which sees its special responsibility as that of reaching the Chinese. The issue is not whether we need a Chinese church as such. That is a secondary question. The main question is who will work among the Chinese, and how can this work be best carried out?

Protestant work among the Chinese has a history of over one hundred years. That work has included a variety of ministries, including the teaching of English, the teaching of Chinese, rescue missions, social services, children and youth programs, etc. Within these missions, staffed mostly by missionaries, were organized “Chinese” churches led by pastors who were for the most part from China. This was a situation which continued through the 1940’s.

As more and more of the American born became assimilated into the American way of life, the English speaking element within the churches gradually became more predominant. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, this element within the Chinese churches supplied more and more of the leadership and financial support. This period began to raise the question as to whether or not there will continue to be a need for Chinese churches as such. The influx of new immigrants in recent years has, of course, introduced a new dimension to this question.

In May of 1968, the Bureau of Community Research connected with the Pacific School of Religion published a report entitled, “A Study of Chinese Churches in the San Francisco Bay Area.” The report found 34 predominantly Chinese congregations in the Bay Area, two times the number in 1952. This increase can be almost entirely accounted for by new groups coming to work among the Chinese. Denominations such as the Lutherans, Southern Baptists, the Reformed Church, Nazarenes, etc. established work among the Chinese, as well as independent groups with special attraction to student groups, the Mandarin speaking, and other sub-groups of Chinese not being reached by the existing churches. Churches in the Bay Area averaged 120 members; in San Francisco, 240. Including Roman Catholics, Chinese churches were reaching, either as members or as constituents, about 25% of the Chinese population.

From the study, the following profile of the membership emerged. First, the membership was middle class. 70% were married and have middle size families; 50% belong to professional, business, or clerical; and 80% work outside of Chinatown. Secondly, the membership was found to be youthful, with one half of the members between the ages of 25-44. They are undoubtedly the products of the youth programs of the late 1940’s through the early 60’s. Thirdly, the majority of the membership (63%) were born in the United States. Fourthly, most of the members (59%) listed English as their dominant language. The study also found that 70% of the governing boards of these churches consisted of English speaking persons. This profile confirms the observation that the Chinese churches – at least among those which belong to the mainline denominations and have a comparatively speaking long history – are made up primarily of English speaking persons.

The report also found that a third of the membership of these churches live within a mile of the church building, but another third had to travel more than five miles to get to church. Nevertheless, the activity level was fairly high, with 52% reporting that they attend church at least once a week; and 58% reporting that they belong to at least one church group besides attending worship.

The new factor in the Chinese churches is the arrival of a great number of new immigrants in recent years. To varying degrees, they have made an impact upon the churches. Some churches have made the reaching of these new immigrants the main thrust of their work. Other churches have created separate and parallel programs, all the way from polite indifference to open conflict. While these new arrivals hold promise of giving new life to our churches, differences in background, theology, understanding of the scriptures, style of life, etc. could be decisive unless this new challenge is intelligently and creatively met.

These are some of the sociological facts, defining the context in which the Chinese church must do its work. In order, however, to delineate where the church is heading in the 1970’s, it is also necessary to look into the church’s understanding of its mission.


Evangelism, in the broad sense of the term, stands at the center of all that the church does. Evangelism means making the new life in Christ available to all men everywhere. It is simply the carrying out of the Great Commission to “make disciples.”

Evangelism, broadly conceived, involves at least four stages. The first is contact, making some connection, getting next to the people we are trying to reach. The second stage is cultivation. People simply are not able to make any meaningful decision without some prior preparation of heart and mind. The third stage is commitment, the glad and willing response of a person to the call of Christian discipleship. The fourth step is conservation, the continuing process of nurture and growth whereby committed persons express their faith in loving service to others in the name of Christ.

From this it can be readily seen that the vehicles of evangelism involves nothing less than the totality of all that the church does. Christian education, social service, social action committees, and services of worship are necessary either as preparation for, or as an expression of, the new life in Christ. Mass evangelistic meetings (emphasizing the element of commitment) is meaningful only when placed within the total context of nurture and the life of service and witness.

The church’s main task, therefore, is to call men to respond in love and trust to God through Christ. That is where the Christian life begins. This relation which man has with God is always deeply personal, even mystical, in nature. One of the main contributions of the conservative wing of the Christian faith is to constantly remind us of that fact.

However, we need to go on to say that although faith is intensely personal, it is never private. Much harm has been done to the Christian cause with the uncritical identification of the personal with the private. True faith always seeks to find ways of expressing the love of God in love for neighbor. The Christian lives a “separated” existence only in the sense that his life is different from, or distinguishable from that of the world; but the Christian never lives apart from the world. He is in the world but not of it. He relates to the world as salt, light, and leaven.

Much of the recent criticism of the church today is precisely at this point: the church has not been sufficiently concerned about the large social issues such as injustice, war, the pollution of the environment, etc., being too often preoccupied exclusively with personal morality and the salvation of the individual’s soul.

It is extremely unfortunate that in the fundamentalist-liberal controversy, which goes back now at least half a century, commitment to Jesus Christ in a deep personal sense and concern for the world and its needs are seen as opposites. Why could we not have said that the more deeply we are committed to Christ, the more we will be committed to the world and its needs? And conversely, the more we are committed to the world and its needs, the more we will see the need for the new life in Christ.

Now when people ask the question, “What is your church doing?”, I believe we must not hesitate to say that the main thing we are doing is to bring to men the new life in Christ. But I also believe that the fullness of faith must be expressed not only in deep personal commitment, but also in works of love: for much of the outside world will understand our commitment only in terms of our works of love.

Where the Chinese churches are heading in the 1970’s depends on how those of us who belong to Chinese churches respond to the new challenges and opportunities, and this in turn depends largely on our understanding of what the mission of the church is. Three factors, it seems to me, are relevant:

  1. The quality of commitment we bring to bear on the work of the Chinese churches. If we seek first the Kingdom — give this matter of reaching the Chinese top priority as far as energy and resources are concerned — then we may see some notable progress made in the coming decade.
  2. The fullness of our understanding of the Gospel, taking seriously both parts of the great commandment. The whole Gospel should be deeply personal and socially relevant at the same time. The 1970’s are not a time to retreat to an individualistic perversion of the Gospel. We must not only move ahead, but in the right direction.
  3. The quality of leadership we can bring to bear in reaching all age groups and conditions of men. We are beginning to see emerging in the Chinese churches a quality of mature churchmanship such as we have never seen in the history of the Chinese churches in America. Whether all the potential that is there can be effectively channeled is for the present an open question. The present generation of Christians in our churches is probably better trained, and has more in the way of financial and other resources, than any previous generation. If we are good stewards, we may write a significant chapter in the history of the Chinese church in America.

Asian American Legacy: Dr. Mabel Lee

From Chinese Students Monthly (ca 1915).

From Chinese Students Monthly (ca 1915).

Like many Asian Americans who came of age in the early and middle decades of the Twentieth Century, Mabel Lee’s relative fame or notoriety vanished during the 1950s.[1] By then, many Americans believed the assimilation of immigrants was inevitable and that the integration of African Americans was the final step towards a non-racial society. Consequently, it was no longer acceptable to recognize or emphasize racial or ethnic differences among Americans of foreign descent (despite the realization that cultural differences among nations were to be respected and honored[2]).

As the de facto minister of what is now the First Chinese Baptist Church of New York between 1925 and 1966, Mabel Lee (1896-1966) secured a relatively comfortable niche in turbulent times. The decline of the woman’s missionary movement and the Social Gospel, the Great Depression, the Sino-Japanese conflict, World War II, the Chinese Civil War, and the Cold War all challenged the faith that she was nurtured in. Yet, in contrast to Margaret Chung, who left the church and pursued a non-religious life, Mabel Lee dedicated her life to her congregation and community service center in New York’s Chinatown. She was also unusual because she earned a Ph.D., something that was quite rare among Chinese American women. Finally, even though she shared her father’s evangelicalism, she was nurtured by the progressivism of the social gospel. As a result, she never connected with the wave of Chinese fundamentalists and evangelicals who came to dominate the Chinese church since the 1960s.

I first learned about Mabel Lee over twenty years ago when I was a youth and associate pastor in Brooklyn. Even among my more progressive Metro New York American Baptist ministry colleagues, it was unusual for a woman to be a lead pastor of a congregation (let alone a Chinese woman). So I investigated and found materials about her in the archives of the American Baptist Historical Society and the First Chinese Baptist Church of New York. Because of my limited Chinese language skills and a transition to Denver Seminary, this research project has never felt complete. But I managed to cobble enough together to present a paper at the 1996 Organization of American Historians meeting. The paper has a rather ambivalent conclusion, so I invite others who may know more about Mabel Lee to offer a more precise narrative of her life. The paper can be downloaded here:

>> Timothy Tseng, Dr. Mabel Lee: The Intersticial Career of a Protestant Chinese American Woman, 1924-1950

A short article about her can be found in The Westminster Handbook to Women in American Religious History edited by Susan Hill Lindley and Eleanor J. Stebner  (Westminster/John Knox, 2008), page 130. It references my chapter, “Chinese Protestant Nationalism in the United States, 1880-1927,” New Spiritual Homes: Religion and Asian Americans, edited by David Yoo (University of Hawaii Press, 1999) and the paper that I presented. Unfortunately, it incorrectly identified her birth year as 1893 instead of 1896 because of a typo in my paper.

* * *

A young Mabel Lee, suffragist. At Barnard College (1914?). Courtesy of American Baptist Historical Society.

A young Mabel Lee, suffragist. At Barnard College (1914?). Courtesy of American Baptist Historical Society.

Mabel Lee: feminist and suffragist

Mabel Lee was a pastor’s kid. Her father, Lee To, had been the pastor of the Baptist Chinese Mission in New York’s Chinatown since 1904. [I will add a blog about Rev. Lee To soon]

Born in Canton in 1896, Mabel accompanied her father to the United States and studied in American public schools. She enrolled in Barnard College and graduated in 1916. She then earned a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University in 1921. Her dissertation was published later that year[3].

In addition to her father’s evangelical piety, she also shared his zeal to engage the social problems of the Chinese community in New York and overseas. During her college years, she integrated her devotion to faith, the reconstruction of China, and woman’s suffrage.

I’ve excerpted a couple of quotes from her speech “China’s Submerged Half” (1915?) and article in The Chinese Students Monthly (May 1914) entitled “The Meaning of Woman Suffrage.” The entire speech and article can be downloaded by clicking the links below.

“China’s Submerged Half” [download speech]

Our [Chinese] statesmen for century back have felt the need for female education and must have wished for it. But what was the good of their mere wishing?

The missionaries came in their turn. They not only wished and prayed, but they labored. And it is largely due to their untiring efforts in the face of obstacles well-nigh insurmountable, that the present interest in women’s education owes its existence.

Now it is our turn. What are we going to do in answer to the call of duty?

* * *

In furtherance of such a cause we students should take a leading part. To us girls especially, who are among the first to emerge, will fall the duties of pioneers and, if we do our share, ours will be the honor and the glory.

The welfare of China and possibly its very existence as an independent nation depends on rendering tardy justice to its womankind. For no nation can ever make real and lasting progress in civilization unless its women are following close to its men if not actually abreast with them.

“The Meaning of Woman Suffrage” [download article]

[Woman suffrage] is nothing more than a wider application of our ideas of justice and equality. We all believe in the idea of democracy; woman suffrage or the feminist movement (of which woman suffrage is a fourth part) is the application of democracy to women.

Mabel Lee, a newly minted Ph.D.  (Metropolitan Baptists, 1923)

Mabel Lee, a newly minted Ph.D. (Metropolitan Baptists, 1923)

Mabel Lee: pastor and community service worker

After completing her studies, Dr. Mabel Lee had every intention of returning to China. The Metropolitan Baptist Bulletin, New York City reported that:

On March 28, 1923, Miss Lee sailed for France where she is now engaged in the study of European Economics, in fuller preparation for her life work, in her native land, China.  A position of great trust and signal honor awaits her arrival in China.

In one of her letters Miss Lee says: “I do thank God for the United States which gave me such wonderful opportunities for development and such a keen insight into the realms of knowledge.  I feel that my life must be devoted to helping my own people in China.” [4]

From Metropolitan Baptists newsletter (Dec., 1924)

From Metropolitan Baptists newsletter (Dec., 1924)

As a feminist and suffragist, Dr. Lee was less interested in charting a career within the women’s missionary and social reform organizations.

But in November the following year, Rev. Lee To died while negotiating peace between antagonist Chinatown tongs. Mabel Lee then returned to New York City to tend to her mother and assume responsibility for the mission. Her hopes for a temporary situation faded as conditions in China worsened. It also became evident that the survival of the mission and community center depended on Mabel Lee’s skills.

The May 30th Movement erupted in China in the summer of 1925 while Dr. Lee was preparing to rededicate the Chinatown mission. She paused to write a letter of exhortation to the congregation. In it, she displays her love for China as well as a defense of Christianity in the face of increasing anti-Christian hostility in the movement. I’ve excerpted a selection below. [The entire letter can be downloaded at this link].

And all this leads to the thought that we need Christianity more than ever. It is the need of the whole world, as well as the particular nations and peoples. And it is the need of every one of us as individuals. For after all, a nation is only the sum of its individuals. We can never have a fine country if we do not have the right kind of citizens in it.

Thus even at this time of excitement there is not only time for a gathering of Christians, but special need that we should thus come together to renew our faith and trust, and resolve anew that we will each be more worthy disciples in wining more to the gospel and spreading Christ.

We might blame foreign governments and people, we may protest, and we may even shed blood. But China can never be strong unless she has the right kind of citizens. It is not only the enemy without. The enemy within is ever more dangerous. And the only way we can really conquer is through the heart, by putting Christ within.

It is not the nationality which counts. Not all Chinese are to be trusted, and not all foreigners are anxious to crush us. We have many foreign friends who are very anxious to help us win our rights. The difference lies in the fact that they have Christianity in their hearts. And in some foreign governments, the citizens are so much interested in seeing that we have fair play, that they have persuaded their governments to reflect and sponsor their individual opinions.

Let us therefore not forget the significance of our work in the Mission. It may seem very small, but the influence is very vast. Every little we put in counts. “We must be militant” as your chairman once said to me, in our work. That we because of new realization rededicate ourselves to our tasks, that every boy who comes into the Mission will be made to know Christ.

Christianity is the salvation of China, and the salvation of the whole world. Nationality does not divide us for we are one at heart. Let us pray that China will be for Christ.

It’s likely that Mabel Lee’s interest in China never waned. But I found no documentation about her thoughts about the Communist victory in 1950. In any case, she dedicated the rest of her life to the small church and community service center where she undoubtedly influenced the growing population of children and families in New York’s Chinatown.

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[1] See biographies of Margaret Chung (1889-1959) and Anna May Wong (1905-1961). Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Doctor Mom Chung of the Fair-Haired Bastards: The Life of a Wartime Celebrity (Berkeley: University of California, 2005) and Graham Russell Hodges, Anna May Wong: from laundryman’s daughter to Hollywood legend (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
[2]Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003)
[3] Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, The Economic History of China, With Special Reference to Agriculture (New York: Columbia University, 1921)
[4] Metropolitan Baptist Bulletin, New York City, Vol. II:10 (Dec. 1923)


  • Virginia Lieson Brereton, “United and Slighted: Women as Subordinated Insiders,” in Hutchison, William R. Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1960. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989): 143-167.
  • Bruce Edward Hall, Tea That Burns: A Family Memoir of Chinatown (New York: The Free Press, 1998)
  • Nancy Marie Robertson, Christian Sisterhood, Race Relations and the YWCA, 1906-1946 (Urbana, 2009)
  • Timothy Tseng, “Unbinding Their Souls: Chinese Protestant Women in Twentieth-Century America,” Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism edited by Margaret Lamberts Bendroth and Virginia Lieson Brereton (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002): 136-163.
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