Watson Hayes was born in Mercer County, in western Pennsylvania, in 1857. His father was killed in the American Civil War in 1865, so he was brought up by his mother. He graduated from Allegheny College and entered Western Seminary in Pittsburgh in 1879. In 1882, he was ordained and then appointed by the Northern Presbyterian Mission Board to China. Hayes was assigned to learn and work with Calvin Mateer in Shandong Province, and Mateer became his missionary model. Under Mateer’s direction, Hayes quickly became proficient in Chinese language and culture.
Soon, he was teaching astronomy, geology, physics, and mathematics at Dengzhou College, where he was elected president in 1889. He translated and wrote scientific and theological textbooks in Chinese, establishing himself as one of the most outstanding educational missionaries in China. During his lifetime, he authored thirty-seven original works and translations. In addition to teaching, Hayes edited the first newspaper in Shandong and established the first post office outside of the treaty ports. In 1901, citing a deficiency in education highlighted by the recent Boxer rebellion, the Governor of Shandong asked Hayes to establish a government university in Shandong, Shandong Imperial University. Hayes did so, but later resigned over disagreements about mandatory worship of the Emperor. When he was not teaching, Hayes traveled and preached in the rural areas in Shandong.
Hayes became the Dean of Theology at Shandong Christian (Qilu) University when it merged with Dengzhou College in 1916. In 1919, amidst internal turmoil relating to the widening gap between theological conservatism and liberalism, Hayes was forced to resign from Qilu University. The Chinese Presbyterian students were so upset at Hayes’s departure that many of them walked out of Qilu and followed Hayes to Weixian, where Hayes continued to tutor them. The Jinan Presbytery resolved that the Presbyterian Church must establish its own theological school, and a provisional Board of Directors convened to form the North China Theological Seminary (NCTS), inviting Hayes to be its president.
The Jinan Presbytery composed a declaration of independence from Western liberal Protestantism, enumerating four points of principle. First, “that internal university conflict did not promote the growth of ‘our students in Christian grace and spiritual knowledge.’” Second, that the “present instruction failed to provide suitable preparation for ministry in our church.” Third, that “students are not protected from erroneous teaching.” And fourth, that these concerns had been longstanding ones “for our most reliable theological students as well as discerning Mission members” (MacLeod, 6). The Presbytery announced their intention to start up a new “Bible honoring” school. This was an important declaration, as it demonstrated that the Chinese church was taking the initiative in asserting a commitment to evangelicalism.
Founded partly as a protest against the modernist teachings in Shandong Christian University, the NCTS devoted itself to conservative theology. As an institution, it was deeply rooted in the principle of the infallible authority of the Bible. The Board of Directors defined the purpose of the seminary as follows: “First, To teach the fundamental doctrines of the Christian church as found in the Word of God. Second, To emphasize the Bible as the only sufficient rule of faith and practice. Third, To preserve conservative teaching with regard to Theology, Biblical criticism, and Exegesis” (Yao, 148). As its founder and first president, Hayes played a primary role in shaping the character of the NCTS. Hayes stated the following as his vision for the seminary: “We teach the pristine gospel…and stand by the Whole Bible…here [students] will find ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’” (Yao, 150).
The Northern Presbyterian Mission Board opposed the NCTS from the beginning, claiming it was not necessary to have two rival seminaries in the same region. A compromise was finally reached, whereby Hayes and another missionary, Albert Dodd, would be allowed to teach there and retain their financial support from the Board, but the Board would not be responsible for the expenses of the new seminary. Hayes encouraged the Chinese churches to take on significant financial responsibility, and he also had several generous donors from the United States. Desiring that the student body be self-supporting, Hayes kept the seminary expenses low. The Board became upset when some of the home churches began sending support directly to Hayes for the NCTS instead of to the Mission Board, and Hayes accused the Board of trying to crush the conservative seminary. Throughout these struggles, Hayes never made any public statements disagreeing with the Mission Board; he engaged in all of his arguments through private correspondence, differentiating himself from the most belligerent fundamentalists.
Theologically very conservative, Hayes gained a reputation as a “rock of Orthodoxy” (Yao, 147). He persistently criticized modernism, writing, “At present there seems to be a great tendency to emphasize zeal in social work and respectability, to adapt Christianity to the demands of the age instead of the age to the demands of Christianity, while purity of doctrine is laughed out of court” (Yao, 149). Hayes firmly believed that theological education was the best means to fight modernism. Consequently, the curriculum of the NCTS was dominated by Old Testament and New Testament courses. Hayes himself was considered by many to be the “best theological teacher in all China” (Yao, 143).
In 1922, the seminary moved to Tengxian, where it quickly became the largest theological seminary in China. The Women’s Bible Seminary was also created, connected to the men’s. From 1919-1933, 204 men and sixty-two women graduated from the NCTS and the Women’s Bible Seminary, going on to serve in churches across the country. Through these graduates, the NCTS exerted a prevailing influence on the character of Chinese churches.
The NCTS emphasized evangelism and designed the school calendar to give the students six months between school years for engaging in evangelistic work in the city and neighboring villages, so that “on graduation day, they will not be inexperienced novices but men qualified by educational culture and practical experience to build up the church” (Yao, 156). The majority of the faculty of the NCTS also participated in leading revival meetings, Bible study conferences, and other evangelistic events. Hayes stressed direct evangelistic work as the primary task of Christian missions, saying, “the main business of the missionary is not to teach modern methods of farming, political science, philosophy, or modern languages…but to lead men to know God and Jesus Christ” (Yao, 153). Hayes believed that many Christian missions in China were in danger of overemphasizing social reform at the cost of evangelism.
Hayes, understanding the desire of Chinese churches for more self-governance, maintained that the seminary should be under control of the Chinese church, especially as the Chinese were the ones who had taken the initiative to break away from Shandong Christian University. The Board of Directors was elected by the Chinese churches, and the majority of the board members were Chinese Christians. At least half of the faculty members were Chinese. Hayes was intent on strengthening the indigenous church in China, and the NCTS attracted a large number of Chinese Christians to study theology there. The NCTS did not want to Westernize its students, so classes were taught in Mandarin. English was offered, but only as an elective.
Hayes and his wife (Margaret Young Hayes) were revered among the missionary community. A young missionary wrote this of her impression of Hayes: “rather unapproachable, always busy, a bit fierce at times, but dryly humorous too,” and this of his wife, Margaret: “shy, perfect housekeeper and cook, droll, and very firm” (MacLeod, 4). Hayes did not believe missionaries should involve themselves in politics, writing that “the proper course for missionaries is to emulate the Apostles who, though living in times of great national peril, never mention political events in their epistles but confine themselves strictly to the Gospel message and the spiritual care of the churches” (MacLeod, 3).
Hayes took a six month furlough in 1930, during which he announced his intention to retire. Since 1920, Hayes had been the dominant figure in running the NCTS. He not only taught theology and raised funds, but he almost singlehandedly ran the administration of the school. Beginning in 1937, Hayes began to transfer the leadership of the NCTS to the Chinese Christians. At his fiftieth anniversary on the field, it was stated: “It is rare that God vouchsafes to one of his missionary servants five decades of service, and especially such unusual service as Dr. Hayes has rendered, not only within the confines of his own mission, but to the church of God throughout all China” (MacLeod, 4).
In the 1930s, a Pentecostal type of revival movement rose in Shandong Province, called the “Spiritual Grace Movement.” Hayes was skeptical of this revival movement, criticizing the yelling and shouting during prayer as well as the manifestations of supernatural abilities. He was also troubled by the “imaginary exegesis” common among the followers of the movement, who did not think that reading the Bible or preparing for teaching was necessary, as the Spirit would tell them what to say. Hayes was convinced that these wild ideas “seem to be one of the devices of the Evil One to retain his hold, and sometimes a movement that has begun well and promises good results is manipulated by him so as to do more harm than good” (Yao, 171).
When the Spiritual Grace Movement started to invade the NCTS campus, Hayes emphasized that “nothing but a thorough knowledge of the profound truths of Christ and the Apostles will prevent men from advancing their own crude and erroneous ideas” (Yao, 171). Hayes put even further stress on studies of the New Testament, and the Board of Directors decided that all students would be required to read through the whole Bible under the guidance of faculty members. In his fight against the Spiritual Grace Movement, Hayes demonstrated his commitment to intellectualism, in identifying spiritual fanatics, not just modernists, as enemies of sound faith and doctrine.
On December 8, 1941, Japanese troops rounded up the American and British faculty members at the NCTS and disbanded the student body. Hayes was placed in a Japanese internment camp in Weixian, where he died in 1944. The following words were read at his memorial:
“From the time of the founding of the North China Theological Seminary in 1919 until the time of his death in 1944, Dr. Hayes devoted all his great abilities and scholarship to the task of building up the Seminary, with the result that it became the largest and strongest theological seminary in China, and sent out into all China a great number of well-trained pastors, preachers, and Bible women, thoroughly grounded in the sound evangelical faith for which the Seminary ever stood” (MacLeod, 12).
Hayes had labored in China for sixty-two years. At their first post-war meeting, the NCTS Board offered the following tribute: “Though [Dr. Hayes] lived and labored in Shantung, his influence was felt throughout all China… [He] was an unusually fine Chinese scholar and an indefatigable worker up to the time of his death” (MacLeod, 4).
MacLeod, Donald. “Watson Hayes and the North China Theological Seminary,” in Bruce P. Baugus, ed., China’s Reforming Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014, 59-71.
White, John G., ed. A Twentieth Century History of Mercer County, Pennsylvania. Mercer: Lewis Publishing Company, 1909.
Yao, Kevin Xiyi. The Fundamentalist Movement Among Protestant Missionaries in China, 1920-1937. Dallas: University Press of America, Inc., 2003.