Gao Daling was a gifted scholar from Baiba Village 栢柭村 in Yangqu County 阳曲县, Shanxi who had successfully passed the court exam and received the highly regarded jinshi degree. Shortly after British Baptist Timothy Richard arrived in Shanxi to provide relief during the North China Famine (1876-1879), Gao agreed to serve as his Chinese teacher and scribe. While Richard was known for his Chinese language skills, he never mastered writing classical Mandarin by hand, and thus relied on Gao to assist him with producing tracts, books, and placards for use in mission. Gao thus had a hand in much of Richard’s literary work, including his reform proposals to the Shanxi government and the various tracts Richard prepared to distribute to the many aspiring scholars who attended the triennial Provincial Exams in Taiyuan. Gao also helped Mary Martin Richard in the production of her multivolume Jiaoshi liezhuan 教士列传 [Christian Biographies]. Under the influence of the Richards Gao soon became a Christian, one of the early “rocks” of the small Baptist community in Shanxi.
Timothy Richard used a family bequest to purchase the latest scientific instruments in order to convince Shanxi officials of their need to both modernize and to learn the “laws of God in nature.” When he brought out the first set of photographic equipment Richard trained Gao Daling in its operation and use. Gao soon set up the province’s first photographic studio on Qiaotou Street 桥头街, near where the British Baptists had built Shanxi’s first Protestant church during the closing days of the North China Famine.
According to one account, when the Boxers raged through Taiyuan in the summer of 1900, they sought out the influential and well-known Christian Gao Daling especially. Gao was willing to die for the Lord, and so when captured he immediately identified himself. The Boxers did not believe it was Gao, who they assumed would be hiding for his life, and they spared him. When Timothy Richard established the Imperial University of Shanxi as part of the Boxer settlement, Gao accepted a position as a proctor 学监 in the new school. During these days he also served as the director for the Taiyuan YMCA.
In 1912, the Taiyuan Chinese Independent Church (Zhonghua Jidujiao Zilihui 中华基督教自立会) was established by Qiao Yisheng 乔义生in the Dongji Huying 东辑虎营 neighborhood of Taiyuan, and Gao was invited to serve as the first preacher, despite his still having two wives from before his conversion. This new church held strictly to a policy of “Three Don’ts” 三不: don’t invite foreign evangelists, don’t use money from foreigners, and don’t accept foreign control. The independent congregation quickly grew to 200 people, supposedly with the support of Shanxi warlord Yan Xishan. Before long, however, Gao became disillusioned with the Taiyuan Chinese Independent Church, and set up his own New Jesus Church 新耶稣教会 which, drawing upon Gao’s deep connections in the local Christian community, was soon holding nightly meetings of over 300 people.
Stirred by tales of revival, Gao travelled to Beijing in 1919 to witness first-hand the radically independent and charismatic practices and beliefs of Paul Wei’s 魏恩波(魏保罗) True Jesus Church 真耶稣教会 (TJC). Prior to this visit, Gao had adopted the formal positions of the TJC for his Taiyuan New Jesus Church, but now Gao officially embraced the exclusivist TJC and, with the help of Zhang Hanzhong 张汉中 and Li Yuehan 李约翰, brought the new teaching back to Shanxi. They set up the first Shanxi TJC church in Zhao Cheng 赵城, Hongdong County 洪洞县 where Pastor Xi 席胜魔 of the China Inland Mission (CIM) had worked so many years before. Many local CIM followers joined the TJC, drawn by Li Yuehan’s excellent medical skills and the TJC’s independent status.
In 1921 Gao brought the TJC to Taiyuan, converting his old congregation and many others to this pioneering indigenous form of Christianity. The church grew rapidly and soon constructed its own building. Gao was invited by Chinese church leaders across the province to preach to their congregations, in some cases bringing him into direct conflict with foreign missionaries. Through these travels, Gao proved instrumental in the spread of the independent TJC throughout Shanxi province.
Gao’s role in the national TJC was also significant: as the highest educated member of the TJC, he played a central role in the codifying of the basic TJC teaching, enshrining as doctrine both the exclusive nature of the church (there was no salvation outside the TJC) and the central importance of the three-self principles (truly indigenous churches should be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing) for all local TJC congregations. In 1922 Gao was elected General Elder 总长老by the second national meeting of the TJC.
- Hu Shixiang 扈石祥. Hondong jidujiao shi 洪洞基督教史 [History of the Hongdong Christian Church]. Hongdong: Hongdong xian renmin zhengfu minzu zongjiao ke, 1990.
- Lian Xi. “A Messianic Deliverance for Post-Dynastic China: The Launch of the True Jesus Church in the Early Twentieth Century.” Modern China 34, no. 4 (2008): 407-441.
- Shanxi Province Chronicle Research Institute, Eds. 山西省史志硏究院编. Shanxi Tongzhi (No. 46) Ethnic and Religious Chronicles. 山西通志: (第四十六卷) 民族宗教志. Beijing: 中华书局, 1997.
- Wei Yisa, ed. 魏以撒, 編. Zhen Yesu jiaohui chuangli sanshi zhounian jinian zhuankan 真耶穌教會創立三十週年紀念專刊 [Special Volume Commemorating the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Founding of the True Jesus Church]. Nanjing: Zhen Yesu jiaohui, 1948.</li>