His father was a “mayor magistrate” (a magistrate, something like a mayor) in a small town. At one point, he was asked to oversee negotiations over a lawsuit involving a Presbyterian missionary. After settlement, the missionary tried to convert his father, but failed.
Later, his father lost his job and moved to Nanjing. There, his wife died when her son, Junying, was only six years old. Both Zhao’s mother and father died as nonbelievers.
When he was eight, his father sent him to a mission school in Yenchen, in the care of missionary Hugh White. He attended the school through seven years of primary school and the first two years of high school. A “Mr. Bridgman” helped him attend high school, and later left Zhao some money when he died.
While in high school, he met James Graham III, who had been appointed the school principal; his daughter Mary was born there in 1922 and grew up at the school. Graham liked sports and played basketball with the boys. He trained them in football (“olive ball” in Chinese) and Junying played quarterback on the first Chinese-American football team in China. In 1922 when Junying was 16, they competed against the American school in Shanghai (where Graham had gone to school) but lost 36 to 6.
Zhao recalled that Graham spoke Chinese, both scholarly and colloquial “street” Chinese, better than any other missionary. He used the Scofield Correspondence Course as a textbook, teaching the students dispensationalism (which he later rejected).
After high school (it is unclear whether Zhao continued his final two years there or elsewhere), Graham sent Zhao to a Christian College (again, we are not sure where), hoping that he could return as an assistant, but when communist troops came to the area in 1927, the Grahams left along with many others. The school soon closed. (in the 1950s he established Christ’s College in Taiwan.)
1927-1931 Zhao contracted tuberculosis while at college and went to Qingjiang ?? (then Tsing-Ksiang-Pu, today known as Lianyungang, a major port on the Jiangsu coast) for treatment at the Love and Mercy Hospital. (Both “Uncle Jimmy Graham” and Dr. Nelson Bell, father of Ruth Bell Graham, served in the mission; Bell was his physician). “Aunt Sophie Graham” often visited the patients and he wrote to her as well as other friends when he ran out of money for treatment. She offered to take him into her home for recuperation in the daytime, while he stayed in a nearby school dormitory. (Dr. Bell had told him not to return to school or work yet). She soon became like a mother to him.
While in the hospital facing possible death, Zhao wrestled with the question of life after death. In high school, he had been influenced by “fundamentalist training” of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, under Graham III and Hugh White and also “liberal training” due to the influence of the May Fourth Movement philosophy. There ensued a huge struggle in his heart. Wanting to believe in life after death and with time to read the Bible thoroughly, he found stirring promises there. “Once you do not believe the Bible or doubt the Bible, there is nothing to believe, nothing to hold onto.”
During this time, he became “convinced intellectually that the Bible is the Word of God and that all my Christian doctrines could now have a Biblical basis, a basis upon which I could ground my faith.” He wanted to be a Christian like the Grahams, who showed him the reality of God by the way they lived and took care of him, a stranger.
The influence of the Graham family on Zhao and his beliefs and ministry style was foundational in a number of ways, including his belief in Bible inerrancy - a central teaching throughout his life and ministry. (Zhao called Sophie a “great enemy of modernism;” she prayed only using Scripture.)
Later, he brought his Christian wife Faith (Zhang Xingchu ???) to meet “Uncle Jimmy” and “Mother Graham.” Zhao and his wife eventually had eight children, one of them also named Calvin. It isn’t clear when Zhao adopted the English name of the great 16th century reformer.
In 1931, Zhao made a public profession of faith at the end of a series of revival meetings led by Ji Zhiwen (Andrew Gih). He went forward to the altar on the last day, and confessed his sins; the more he confessed the more he appreciated the love of God. During a half hour alone after others had left the building, “I seemed to hear Christ calling me to go preach to the young people that have the same kind of problems I had been struggling with. So I said to God, ‘Yes, here I am - I’m willing.’” While working as an itinerant evangelist he was a member of the Chinese Native Evangelist Crusade, involved in student work.
Instrument of Revival
During the 1930s and 1940s, God used Zhao to bring revival to many Chinese students, including thousands of university students converted in Southeast Asia. He helped to organize the China Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. Most colleges in China had Christian fellowship groups, and some of the student members became leading evangelists who carried on the work during the years of persecution.
As general secretary of InterVarsity - China during the Japanese occupation, Zhao held powerful evangelistic campaigns in Chengdu, Sichuan province, the home of two great universities and the wartime refuge for five others. On one occasion, 168 students became Christians in four days. Their hearts and minds were open after living as refugees and seeing the desperate poverty in the mountains of southwestern China.
In July 1947, 350 students from every Chinese university gathered for an I-V conference outside of Nanjing. Zhao opened with a reminder that Christians must prepare to be persecuted for the name of Jesus. Closing testimonies sparked a revival among the students.
When the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) was organized in 1947, the China IVF joined with nine other IVFs (Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Holland, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the USA). China IVF was the largest movement affiliated with IFES.
In the early 1950s, Zhao was subjected to public criticism, along with six other national Christian leaders. (Later, he wrote books to refute the charges.) After resigning from the post of General Secretary, Zhao went to Hong Kong and then on to Singapore to found the Singapore Chinese Bible College (1952), and later the Chinese Youth Gospel Center in Manila.
There is some evidence that the Zhaos had a daughter whom they named after Sophie Graham.
Zhao and his wife later moved to the U.S. to work with students. Their approach to “Chinese for Christ” ministry in North America consisted mainly of opening homes in multiple locations to befriend, take care of and teach Chinese, mainly by showing them what it meant to be Christian, rather than preaching to them.
The seminary Zhao founded in Los Angeles in 1959 was called “Chinese for Christ Theological Seminary.” After his death, it was renamed “Calvin Zhao Chinese for Christ Theological Seminary.” “Chinese for Christ” communities continued the work in several U.S. cities.
- Stacey Bieler and Carol Lee Hamrin, “Christianity Fever,” Christian History & Biography, April, 2008.
- “Like a son to Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Sophie,” typescript of an interview of Calvin Zhao in his old age by Mary Reid in late 1987 in L.A. Zhao says in the interview that he wrote a book about Sophie Graham in Chinese. Contact: John Reid, 14300 Chenal Parkway 7119, Little Rock, AR 72211-5812, (501) 228-4814.
- Stephen Fortosis and Mary Graham Reid, Boxers to Bandits: The Extraordinary Story of Jimmy and Sophie Graham, Pioneer Missionaries in China, 1889-1940 (Charlotte, NC: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 2006).
- More information, including the sad story of the struggle between David Adeney and Zhao, can be found at the Wheaton archives. There are three transcripts of Paul A. Contento. [www.wheaton.edu/bgc/archives/GUIDES/472.htm]