David Adeney came from a family with a rich Christian ministry and missionary heritage. His ancestors included the Puritan leader William Baxter. His great grandfather was a tailor whose real passion was for open-air preaching. His parents worked among Jews in Romania; his uncle and aunt served as missionaries in Egypt.
David’s father, J(ohn) Howard Adeney, who was a missionary with the Church Ministry to the Jews, lost his first wife shortly after she gave birth to their first child. In 1920 he married Florence Wood, who had come to Bucharest to work in the school for girls which he had founded. When Florence learned she was expecting a child, it was decided that she would return to England, where conditions for childbirth were better. Thus, David Adeney was born in his mother’s home town of Bedford.
Because David’s mother thought that life in Romania would be injurious to the health of her children, she remained in England while Howard Adeney reached out to Jews in Bucharest, joining the family only for two months each summer. Despite his father’s absence, David admired his devotion to God, zeal for evangelism, and quiet life of disciplined faith.
David’s mother “Florry” saw to it that her four sons learned the truth of the Bible early in life. Church, summer camps, and other Christian activities nurtured David’s own faith, until he committed himself irrevocably to Christ just before going off to boarding school. Not long afterwards, he declared his intention to be a missionary. All four brothers eventually ended up on the foreign mission field.
At the age of 12, David entered Monkton Combe, a boarding school for boys with a Spartan and demanding atmosphere that he did not enjoy but afterwards admitted had probably prepared him for his missionary career. Unathletic, he never excelled in sports. His disciplined spiritual life, on the other hand, earned him a reputation as a serious Christian. Daily prayer and Bible study formed habits that would in later years sustain and nourish his soul. Along with other boys, he led worship services at a nearby village church, earning the nickname, “Bishop of Conkwell.” Christian Union Bible studies and other activities further built his faith and his knowledge of Scripture.
One of his teachers, Stanley Houghton, was about to sail for China with the China Inland Mission. He shared with the boys his passion for the spread of the Gospel among the Chinese, and David’s heart was moved. Reading books about missionary work in China, especially the biography of Hudson Taylor, he sensed God’s leading in his life to go to China also.
He joined the CIM’s “Comradeship for China,” a group especially for young people; read their magazine, Young China; contributed money to the support of missionaries; and left school determined to get to China as soon as possible.
Before matriculating at Queen’s College, Cambridge, Adeney effectively left the Anglican church of his parents and received baptism by immersion, becoming an active member of Russell Park Baptist Church. He also attended the Missionary Training Colony, where rigorous physical demands were matched by training in godliness and in evangelism. This focus on the spiritual life and ministry skills of the students would greatly influence his later missionary training ministry.
As soon as he arrived at Cambridge, Adeney joined the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU), and threw himself into the Bible studies, weekly prayer meetings, and evangelistic outreach of this zealous organization. Soon, he was elected one of the leaders, with particular responsibilities as Mission Secretary. His intense passion for reaching his generation with the Gospel energized his leadership of the Cambridge Volunteer Mission and left a profound imprint on all who knew him. He inspired others with his “transparent sincerity and almost ascetic devotion to Christ.”
Having begun his studies in History, Adeney switched to Theology. The liberal stance of his professors vexed him greatly, but he came through with a renewed conviction of the centrality of the Resurrection of Christ, which became a major theme in his preaching.
After graduation from Cambridge, Adeney went to the headquarters of the China Inland Mission (CIM) at Newington Green in London for the one-year missionary training school, under the mentorship of Roland Hogben. This godly man helped sharpen Adeney’s Bible study and preaching skills, and deepened his reliance upon prayer; he later edited a book on prayer by Hogben, who declared, “Prayer is the interruption of human ambition.” Adeney left England the following year with a three-fold ambition: to know Christ, to please Christ, and to preach Christ.
Arriving in China, Adeney went through the CIM’s required six months’ language study program, during which he was given the name Ai De-li, which means, “receive the truth.” During that time also, John and Betty Stam were martyred by Communists; Western powers sent gunboats in response; and children from the Cheefoo School were briefly kidnapped.
After language school, Adeney was assigned to the city of Hiangcheng in rural Henan, forty miles by bicycle from the nearest railway station. Here he continued language study and began to engage in rural evangelism and church work. He was greatly influenced by his language teacher, Wang Yi-Zhai, and by the example and training methods of Yang Shaotang (David Yang), teacher and evangelist, who founded and ran a training school for Christian workers (Ling Gong Tuan) in Shanxi. His short stay at Ling Gong Tuan influenced both his spiritual life and his vision for training Christian workers. At this formative stage he also learned to rely on God’s Holy Spirit for both physical and spiritual strength, as he trusted in God’s unfailing promises in the Bible. He was also struck by a brief meeting with the great evangelist John Song, whose self-effacing manner affected Adeney’s deportment forever.
These years of exhausting rural village evangelism and church planting brought Adeney close to the people whom he loved so much and longed to bring to a knowledge of Christ. They also helped lay the groundwork for the mighty revival that would come to Henan in the latter part of the 20th century.
David Adeney married Ruth Temple, an American member of the CIM, and together they served a small church in Fangcheng, Henan. Japanese aggression caused great suffering for the people, whom the Adeneys tried to comfort with love and the Gospel until their furlough in 1941.
First in the United States, and then in Great Britain, Adeney worked hard to promote prayerful commitment to the cause of overseas missions. As missions secretary for the newly-formed American branch of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF, I-V for short), David traveled the country visiting campuses and organizing prayer groups for missions work, especially in China but also worldwide. His example and encouragement profoundly influenced dozens of students to follow Christ, including a number who would play key leadership roles, such as Charles Hummel and J. Christy Wilson. He formed strong friendships with Harold Ockenga of Park Street Church in Boston and others, laying a foundation for future work with I-V.
Moving over to England for the next two years, Adeney served first as Prayer Secretary and then Youth Secretary for CIM, thus combining two of his passions and reflecting his priorities of prayer and inspiring young people to commit themselves to overseas missions work.
Returning to China by airplane (the first CIM missionary to fly) in 1945, David plunged into tireless ministry with China’s Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, under the able leadership of Calvin Chao. The next five years witnessed a remarkable turning to God among students whose lives had been shattered by the war with Japan and then the civil war. As always, Adeney emphasized both personal and small group Bible study and prayer, knowing that only a deep spiritual foundation and mutual encouragement could sustain these young believers in what would surely be challenging years to come.
During these years of intense ministry in Chongqing, Nanjing, and Shanghai (plus widespread travel), David worked with such Chinese leaders as Moses Yu, John Chang, David Yang, and Timothy Lin (Lin Tao-Liang), and got to know Beijing pastor Wang Ming-dao, who deeply impressed him. His closest foreign colleagues were Henry Guinness and Dr. Pauline Hamilton of the CIM.
After the victory of the Communists in 1949, Adeney continued to serve among the students, who were coming under increasing pressure to adopt the new creed and renounce their Christian faith. Association with Western missionaries, who were tarred with the “imperialist” brush, was a growing liability. Finally, the Adeneys left China in 1950 to avoid causing further trouble to their Chinese friends.
Returning to the United States, Adeney was assigned to Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, responsible for the Midwest region and based near Chicago, Illinois. For the next five years, he traveled throughout the area, supervising I-V staff, speaking at conferences, and paying special attention to students from overseas, particularly Chinese. Later, the job of missions Secretary was added to his portfolio, allowing him to do formally what he and Ruth had always been eager to offer - welcome internationals into their home and seek to point them to Christ. Many prominent Christians around the world point to the Adeneys as prime factors in their conversion.
During this period, Adeney organized a Missionary Training Camp as part of the Cedar Campus I-V camp in Michigan. Modeled on the training he had received in London with OMF and in China under David Yang, this month-long program was both demanding and broadening, and helped equip many for cross-cultural service.
He also organized and led the Fourth International Student Missionary Convention at the University of Illinois at Urbana (later conventionally called the “Urbana” conference). These meetings have been credited with motivating thousands of young people to offer themselves for overseas missionary service.
In 1956, the Adeneys moved to Hong Kong, where David assumed the position as first International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) General Secretary for the Far East. Adeney was instrumental in strengthening the Christian Association at Hong Kong University; establishing the Graduate Christian Fellowship; opening the very popular Evangelical Reading Rooms; publication of a magazine for students in Asia, The Way; the formation of the Inter-School Christian Fellowship for secondary students; and the creation of the Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Hong Kong. Students from these groups later formed the Teachers Christian Fellowship and the Nurses Christian Fellowship.
Students and others influenced by Adeney later became Christian leaders in Hong Kong and around the world. They include Philemon Choi; Ronald Fung; Ernest Lam; Chan Hay Him; Wayland Wong. Singaporean Chua Wee Hian responded to Adeney’s call for Asians to enter missionary service, eventually succeeding him as General Secretary of IFES for Asia and then becoming General Secretary of the whole movement.
While in Hong Kong, Adeney served for two years as part-time interim pastor for Emmanuel Church, where Ruth also led women’s Bible study groups. Through his urging, a Cantonese-language service was begun, attendance at which later exceeded the morning English meeting.
Adeney believed strongly that Christians need to know about and be concerned for the needs of believers in other nations, so he put much time and expense into international conferences that drew students from many countries together.
For twelve years, Adeney sought to build strong student Christian movements in the nations of Asia perimeter. Always, his goal was to foster strong national leadership. Prof. Chang Ming-Che in Taiwan was recruited to help form the Campus Evangelical Fellowship, which he led for twenty years while remaining at his university post.
David Adeney helped to shape the vision of a new training school for Christian workers, Discipleship Training Centre (DTC) in Singapore, and became its first principal in 1967. Heavily influenced by Adeneys’ experience with the CIM missionary training program and David Yang’s school for Christian workers, DTC combined community living, focus on spiritual growth, practice in ministry, and diligent study of the Scriptures, theology, and the Asian context in which graduates would serve.
Adeney, though a careful student himself, always distrusted merely academic theological instruction. His passion for evangelism, Christian growth, and vital church life made him oppose constant pressure to conform DTC’s program to traditional models. He struggled against the pressure to acquire what he called “paper qualifications” that might mask significant character flaws and a lack of ministry skills.
Until his “retirement” from DTC in 1976, Adeney nurtured young Christians for leadership in the Asian church, even while he continued to travel the globe to speak at student conferences. The fruit of his vision and labors can be seen in the quality of DTC’s graduates, including Morley and Sophie Lee from Taiwan; Seyoon Kim from Korea; John Ting from Australia; Ogawa-san and Makino-san from Japan. Dozens of younger believers came to regard David and Ruth Adeney as their spiritual “parents.” Wheaton Graduate School later conferred upon him an honorary Doctorate of Divinity for his relentless missionary travels, teaching, new initiatives, and personal example.
After six months’ teaching at the newly-opened China Graduate School of Theology (CGST) with Jonathan Chao (Zhao Tianen) in Hong Kong, the Adeneys moved to Berkeley, California, where David lived until his death. For a while they helped with the Berkeley Christian Coalition, founded by their son Bernie, and David taught for years at New College, Berkeley, but increasing numbers of invitations to speak in Chinese churches claimed Adeney’s primary loyalty.
When China began opening up to the outside world under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, David Adeney played a major role in alerting Christians in the West to what God had been doing among Chinese.
His frequent trips to China not only re-united him with old friends, but provided information and insights which he passed on to others. China Consultations and China Awareness Seminars informed Christian leaders and others of the latest developments in China and the burgeoning churches there. H served as North American coordinator for OMF’s new China Program; founded the “Pray for China” newsletter (still published by OMF, but now with the title Global Chinese Ministries) to stimulate prayer for the spread of the Gospel in China; published two books (China: Christian Students Face the Revolution and China: The Church’s Long March); penned numerous articles analyzing the complex church situation and relating stories about meeting up with old friends from his days as a missionary there; addressed many conferences, including a plenary session at Urbana ‘79; and mentored younger people sensing God’s leading to work among Chinese.
In particular, he focused his attention on the overseas Chinese church, believing that to be the major outside force for assisting Christians within China itself. His abundant experience and ability to speak Chinese (though with a Henan accent) won him a hearing in Chinese churches around the world.
In 1979, he was elected president of IFES, a position which he held for two four-term terms
David Adeney believed that “guidance for life’s service depends essentially upon the closeness of our fellowship with the Lord Jesus.” For that reason, he always placed more emphasis upon the spiritual qualifications needed for missionary work than upon the urgent need for workers, though he certainly hammered that theme constantly also.
Adeney struggled with poor health from the beginning of his missionary career. In fact, his acceptance into the CIM was in doubt for this reason, until he convinced the interviewer that the words on the wall of the conference room, “As thy days, so shall thy strength be,” (Deuteronomy 33:25 KJV) applied to Adeney himself!
This conviction that the Lord would, in his oft-used words, “undertake” for him energized him when others might have held back. Appearing frail and, especially as he grew older, afflicted with several ailments, he surprised even friends with his stamina and agility. The grueling schedule he maintained, with very infrequent rests and vacations, took its toll on Adeney’s never-robust health, but he kept going, despite his wife’s exhortations to slow down.
Though not without strong opinions, Adeney was known for his compassionate love for others and reliance on God. While he was Principal of Discipleship Training Centre in Singapore, a zealous young faculty member urged him to “do something now” about a student who was causing trouble. Adeney’s reply was characteristic: “I have discovered that in these situations it’s better to pray a long time before speaking.”
His transparent humility and evident intimacy with God made him both approachable and inspiring, especially to young people. In particular, his willingness to confess failure helped face-conscious Asians to learn a new way of coping with failure.
Highly respected by Chinese Christians around the world, Adeney was one of only two foreigners to deliver plenary addresses to the 1986 Chinese Congress on World Evangelization in Taiwan (the other was Dr. James H. Taylor, III).
In public speaking, David Adeney combined an usually clear exposition of Scripture with numerous stories drawn from his experience and wide acquaintances, along with passionate delivery and pointed application. Even into his eighties, he was deeply loved and eagerly listened to by university students, both Chinese and Western. Few speakers could hold match his ability to hold an audience spell-bound.
Part of his power to influence others lay in his faithful follow up of friends and those whom he had met even briefly. Adeney kept up an enormous correspondence with people all over the world, faithfully answering each letter and calling by phone when possible. Anecdotes abound about phone calls from Adeney from the dozens of airports through which he passed on his incessant journeys around the globe.
Despite a spinal injury and her faithful care of their children, Ruth Adeney played a vital role in her husband’s ministry, providing counsel, “tea” and lodging to countless people.
No one is without faults, and the Adeneys were candid about those of David. Like his father, he was a “workaholic” who sometimes tended to neglect his wife and children in favor of what he considered to be his mission from God. His children, however, have expressed no sense of having been deprived of their father’s love. Towards the end of his life, he confessed that perhaps he had been driven more by personal motives than by God’s Spirit at times, and had not spent enough time resting in God’s grace. Similarly, those who worked under him sometimes felt that he was expecting too much of them.
Though highly intelligent, Adeney was known for his absent-mindedness and difficulty in focusing on details like luggage and tickets. “He gave vision and leadership. Administration was simply his weakness,” observed one close colleague.
He waged a lifelong struggle against an almost debilitating sense of inadequacy that sometimes filled him with dread before major speaking engagements or conferences. Faith always triumphed in the end, however, and he would rise up to serve God with the power of the Spirit.
At the core, however, Christ reigned. He once wrote to I-V staff on his team:
There is no substitute for deep devotion, experience of the power of the Holy Spirit, and sacrificial service... There must be times of very close fellowship with the Lord, including periods of worship in the Spirit and fervent intercession for others.
He spoke with the authority of personal example.
The Adeneys had four children, Rosemary, John, Michael, and Bernard.
- Adeney, David H.. Christian Students in Communist Society (1951); China: The Church’s Long March (1985); China: Christian Students Face the Revolution (1973); The Church in China Today and Lessons We Can Learn from It (1978); Men of Vision (1978);The Unchanging Commission (1955).
- Armitage, Carolyn. Reaching for the Goal: The Life Story of David Adeney – Ordinary Man, Extraordinary Mission Wheaton, Illinois: OMF Book published by Harold Shaw Publishers, 1993.