1876  — 1962

John Leighton Stuart (Part 1 of 2)

New Testament scholar, theological educator, president of Yenching College, U.S. Ambassador to China.

John Leighton Stuart was born in Hangchow (Hangzhou), China, the eldest of four sons of Presbyterian missionaries. His father, John Linton Stuart, had been moved to serve in China as a missionary by a message by Dr. John L. Nevius of China and was one of the first missionaries sent out by the Executive Committee of Foreign Missions of the new Southern Presbyterian Church, going to China with two associates in 1868. He began his work in Hangzhou (then called Hangchow) in 1874 and remained there for forty-six years, setting an example of long and faithful service for his sons.

Stuart’s mother, Mary Louisa Horton of Mobile, Alabama, was the daughter of a judge. At the invitation of the Reverend John Leighton Wilson, Executive Secretary of the Foreign Missions committee, she went to meet John Linton Stuart, whom she soon married. John Leighton Stuart was named after the man who had thus introduced her to the person who would become his father.

Though he engaged in evangelism and church planting, Stuart’s father also started a school for boys; his mother also started one for girls, which was even more successful. Their educational example surely inspired their son to follow a similar course.

Our lives are shaped by our childhood and early years, and the same was true of Leighton Stuart. Of his father and mother, he wrote, “Our parents were remembered in our later years with admiring affection. They were wise and kind in their treatment of us and we have no recollections other than happy ones” (Stuart 14). They took the boys on frequent trips into the country and to places like Chefoo, where they met Dr. Calvin Mateer, a friend of Stuart’s father, who made a strong impression on them.

The intimate familiarity with Chinese people and culture likewise found its root in their friendships with Chinese playmates, of whom they were very fond. “We enjoyed immensely Chinese food, candies, fruits, and most of all the elaborate feasts and ceremonies of the weddings as they celebrated. We studied no Chinese books, which is my only regret of those years” (Stuart 15). Until they were eleven, their mother was their only teacher, who did well enough to prepare them for the Mobile, Alabama, public schools when they entered these. In addition, they had “Sunday schools and regular family prayers” (Stuart 16).

Something else made a lifelong impression on the young Stuart: When his father took him on evangelistic trips, he remembered “some of the curious questions of ‘listeners’ regarding my father’s clothes and appearance while he was preaching, and I wondered whether it was all worthwhile. Later in America I was to experience something of a revulsion against this kind of missionary effort, a revulsion that had to be overcome” before he could commit to missionary service in China (Stuart 16).

When the Stuarts went on furlough to Alabama in 1887,

[The boys] “were utilized by my parents – such was the accepted procedure – as part of the stock in trade for arousing popular interest in China as a mission field … We little boys were made to dress in costume, eat with chopsticks, sing hymns in Chinese … and otherwise furnish an exhibit. Our clothes were relics of the British styles in the Shanghai of earlier and very simple beginnings. Our speech was that of serious-minded elders who almost alone had been our acquaintances. We were unbelievably ignorant of the language, habits, standards and juvenile meannesses of our American contemporaries …” (Stuart 15-17).

They endured “verbal torture” from their classmates and insensitive questions from their relatives.

To make matters worse, their guardians adhered to “the strictest Scotch Presbyterian regimen which my uncle had inherited, accentuated by their conception of the children of missionaries ought to be… . We were taken across town every Sunday to a mission church… . [Because of Sabbatarian rules] we had to walk in the mornings to Sunday school and worship service, and in the evenings to Christian Endeavor and still another religious service. On Sunday afternoons we memorized bible verses and hymns” (Stuart 17-18). Nor could they enjoy dancing and the theater, as their young relatives could.

Perhaps we should pause here to make two observations: First, their childhood reflected that of most children of missionaries in China and contrasted sharply to that of the practices of China Inland Mission missionaries, who lived among the Chinese like Chinese, wearing Chinese dress and adopting Chinese customs. To give them a proper foreign education, they were sent to Chefoo school, where they studied with other missionary children.

Second, the strict and solemn religion of their uncle and aunt seems to have forever turned Stuart against conservative evangelical Christianity, to which he thereafter evinced a mixture of loathing and derision. His later turning to “liberal” Protestantism makes perfect sense against such a background.

In a positive concluding comment about his childhood, Stuart wrote, “My earlier training, and the genuineness of motive apparent even to us little victims, together with uniform kindness and healthy summer sports at the seashore, served to carry me through what otherwise might have been a disastrous revulsion against all religion” (Stuart 19).

Education in Virginia

In 1892, when he was sixteen, Stuart was sent to Charlottesville, Virginia, to study at Pantops Academy, an elite school for boys. While in Mobile, because he didn’t know the games other boys played, he had spent his leisure time reading the novels of Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and other outstanding writers, which probably helped him to develop the elegant style of writing that makes his autobiography so readable.

Whereas he had found school insufferably boring before, at Pantops he had excellent instructors who knew how to inculcate in their students a love of learning. The principal, W.J.R. Sampson, and his wife treated him very kindly, as they did with his two younger brothers when they followed Leighton to Pantops. Mrs. Sampson had three brothers who served in China as missionaries.

For the first time in America, Stuart was “a normal American boy.” The scenery and climate of Charlottesville, which were much more conducive to health and study than the sultry atmosphere of Alabama, and his teachers’ skill, led him to discover that he could “study well and enjoy the effort.” One teacher made Latin and Greek fascinating to him, and another inspired him to excel in English literature, in which he won high honors. Though the religious regimen was strict, other factors helped to “stabilize” his religious attitude.

Having excelled at Pantops, Stuart easily gained admission as a sophomore at Hampden-Sydney College, not far away from Charlottesville. This college declined from its earlier position as a premier institution of higher learning in the South, so Stuart was happy when graduation came. He turned down the fellowship that would have led to a Master’s degree.

Stuart found great stimulation from his classmates, especially E. Lee Trinkle, with whom he formed a very close friendship. He and Lee took second place academically at graduation, and Stuart received the honor of giving the Greek oration during the commencement exercises, a foretaste of his later career as an instructor in Greek in China.

Stuart next enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary, which served as a graduate school to the college. He writes:

Again, the religious requirements seemed to me to be expected, and in the main the spiritual atmosphere was earnest and sincere. We students did not admire the scholarship or social origin of most of the ministerial students, nor in all cases their moral behavior. The compulsory Bible courses were deadly dull, the chapel and Sunday services none too inspiring. But this was not thought of with impatience or protest (Stuart 23).

His religious life in college centered largely on participation in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). That organization, along with the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) was at its height of influence. Both groups urged all young men to consider the claims of foreign service before all other ambitions.

Because of his father’s experience, his unhappy experiences as a missionary child in Alabama, and the “increasing attractiveness of life in Virginia,” Stuart was gripped by a “violent reaction against foreign missions as a career” (Stuart 24). He much preferred the idea of teaching the Classics in Virginia or entering the ministry. He had hopes to complete graduate studies at the University of Virginia or in Germany. When he was offered a job teaching Latin and Greek at Pantops Academy, he eagerly accepted.

For three happy years, he enjoyed making the classical languages interesting to his students, with whom he formed close friendships. Instead of requiring them to read Caesar’s commentaries, he introduced to them the biographies of famous men by Cornelius Nepos. A penetrating question put by a former professor guided his work as an instructor both then and later in China: “Are you teaching Latin or are you teaching boys?” He developed an “almost instinctive relationship with students” that brought joy to them and to himself.

During the summers, Stuart attended two conferences held at Northfield, Massachusetts, by the YMCA and the Student Volunteer Movement. The conferences made a profound impact on his religious outlook for the rest of his life. He wrote:

I found immense religious encouragement from the vital, practical, winsome concepts of religion there presented and inspiration from the noble personalities who promoted, addressed or attended these very successful meetings. They were wholly different from the rather stereotyped, jejune beliefs and practices with which I had been most familiar. Jesus Christ became an adored Master and ideal object of a young man’s enthusiastic devotion, instead of being primarily a theological doctrine about whose mysteriously sublime nature and attributes it was heretical to have any doubts… . This became then and still is the essence of my religious faith. It has remained undimmed and free from all disillusionment after all the experiences and altered theological views of these intervening years (Stuart 26).

His biographer states that this “conception of Jesus was to remain with him throughout his life” (Shaw 16).

After teaching at Pantops for three years, he entered Union Theological Seminary in Richmond (to be distinguished from the school by the same name in New York). The next three years witnessed a process of changing his theological beliefs in the direction of a “progressive and fearlessly unbiased biblical scholarship.” Through trips to the North, “by reading and as by some inner urge, I was increasingly aware of the conflicting standpoints of Southern Presbyterian orthodoxy and the current trends under free inquiry,” he found his “sympathy with the latter” (Stuart 27).

Studies were not too demanding, so he spent his spare time reading “chiefly the newer books on religious, scientific and related issues.” He described the theology of the Southern Presbyterian denomination as filled with “unconvincing or even repellent statements and proofs.” At the same time, however, he admired and respected his professors for their “sincerity, piety, scholarship and broad human sympathies,” while coming to believe that “loyalty to the past and its heritage was a primary virtue.” Somehow, he was able to remain loyal to “the church of [his] fathers” (Stuart 27).

In other words, Stuart embraced the new “modern” and “liberal” theology, which highlighted the humanity of Jesus as the perfect exemplar of virtuous and noble manhood, dedicated to the service of mankind. The youthful, “immature” ideas he rejected were those that affirmed the full deity of Christ, as well as his humanity, and emphasized his saving work on the Cross to atone for our sins, his resurrection from the dead, and his promise to return to judge the living and the dead.

The entirety of Stuart’s later missionary career followed this pattern, concentrated as it was upon seeking to inspire others to follow the example of Jesus in doing good works, rather than to urge people to repent of their sins and trust in Christ as their Savior. At the same time, he would not clearly renounce the official doctrines of the denomination.

Early in his seminary years, Stuart became friends with Lacy Irving Moffett, forming a bond that lasted for a lifetime. Eventually, they both married sisters and served in China as missionaries.

Still, he had a tenacious “aversion … against going to China as a missionary,” because of what he thought it would entail: “haranguing crowds of idle curious people in street chapels or temple fairs, selling tracts for almost nothing, being regarded with amused or angry contempt by the native population, physical discomforts or hardships, etc., no chance for studious or intellectual interest, a sort of living death or modern equivalent for retirement from the world” (Stuart 29).

We have quoted him at such length because it would seem that his view of missionary life in China had been formed by his observation of his father and other missionaries, and it thus seems to reflect their experience.

In the end, he decided that he must, nevertheless, become a missionary, to demonstrate that “Christianity was for me the supreme value,” and the result was that he felt “contented, relieved, even enthusiastic.” In an article to a camp magazine, he wrote that “the spirit of missions is indeed … the spirit of our Master, the very genius of our religion. The evangelization of the entire race is the only adequate object for such a life and death as that of Jesus, and the reason for the existence of his church” (Shaw 17).

He concludes this narrative with the statement that “the career upon which I thus entered has probably enabled me to contribute far more to the Christian cause and to find much more enjoyment in my life than would otherwise have been possible” (Stuart 30).

What is remarkable about this account is the absence of any sense of God’s direct leading, response to the saving work of Christ, or conviction that the Chinese people needed to know Jesus in order to be saved from eternal hell – that is, the sorts of motivations that impelled evangelicals like J. Hudson Taylor to leave home and commit themselves to a lifetime of service in China.

While in seminary, Stuart became actively involved in what was called the “Forward Movement” campaign in the Northern Presbyterian denomination. Instead of asking people to give money to missions in general, they introduced the concept of having people, or a whole congregation, “adopt” an individual missionary (or missionary family), and of holding an “every member canvass” to enlist the entire congregation in the act of giving money to support missionaries whom they had “adopted.”

This campaign enjoyed immediate success, leading to the appointment of Stuart and two others as secretaries. One went overseas and the other two stayed home. Upon graduation from seminary, Stuart was once again offered a fellowship for graduate study, but he turned it down. For one thing, he didn’t see the importance of scholarship on the mission field – a view that he later rejected, becoming himself an eminent missionary scholar. For another, he thought it best to fuel his own growing enthusiasm for missions by urging others to join in supporting foreign missionaries.

As he traveled around the Southern Presbyterian congregations, he formed friendships based on a shared commitment to the spread of Christianity that enabled him to remain loyal to the denomination even though his theological convictions steadily developed along different lines than those of his fellow Southern Presbyterians. These friendships proved critical to his future ministry, affording essential financial support, and protecting him from charges of heresy.

He and Lacy Moffett, having served for two years in the “Forward Movement,” were eager to go to China as missionaries. “We decided not to marry unless both did,” he recalls. As it happened, they met two sisters at a conference and later married them in a double wedding in New Orleans on November 17, 1904. Stuart’s wife was Aline Rodd, and Lacy’s was Kate. He comments, “Our life together was a continued romance for twenty-two years until Aline’s death in Peking in 1926” (Stuart 34).

First years in China

The Stuarts arrived in China at the end of December 1904 and were met by his parents, who escorted them to Hangzhou, where they had served for many years. “Now there began for me the revival of my old aversion as I realized the feeble results of my father’s life-long labors, the small church membership of very humble people,” he remembers (Stuart 35).

Fortunately, his immediate task was the mastery of the Chinese language. “My natural taste for language study strengthened the fascination that Chinese seems to have for all students” (Stuart 35). Though he had forgotten all that he had learned as a child, he thought that this earlier exposure did help him with pronunciation and in learning the idioms. He began to acquire the Hangzhou dialect in its various forms by living close to the people.

Another benefit of being the son of a missionary was that the Chinese pastors seemed to think that he understood them, so they took him into their confidence and shared with him “their ways of thinking, presuppositions, grievances, and misunderstandings of mission policy” (Stuart 36). He was assigned to the rural area in which his parents had worked. From them he learned “the procedure for managing a group of churches which were then growing rapidly, for conducting evangelistic meetings and for getting acquainted with people in their homes” (Stuart 37), experiences that stood him in good stead in later years.

On the other hand, he discovered that the mission methods were not suitable for introducing Chinese into the kind of intimate relationship with Christ that Hudson Taylor and the China Inland missionaries emphasized. Instead, the requirements for baptism consisted mostly of giving assent to a simplified form of doctrinal beliefs, attendance at Sunday services, and observing the Sabbath, “rather than in the moral and social implications of the gospel … Repudiation of ancestor-worship seemed to be a needlessly harsh aggravation of the difficulties for the Chinese convert” (Stuart 37).

Worship services consisted mostly of preaching, with little aesthetic adornment of the sort that Chinese like. “In general, the tendency was toward a somewhat severe, repressive, formalized conception of religion, which was a natural fruition of accepted standards in the parent Church” of the sort that he had met in Alabama and Virginia (Stuart 37).

To make matters worse, many missionaries sought the help of governments to protect them and their converts in legal disputes. The Roman Catholics were especially guilty of this, but American missionaries also called on their governments and Chinese officials for assistance in “religious cases” that infuriated Chinese leaders and common people alike. Chinese Christians were not without blame, either, for they allowed themselves to be used by Christians and their relatives, often to their own profit. Many suspected that people professed to believe in Christ primarily for the material benefits they would gain by association with the foreigners.

Nevertheless, Stuart also wrote about “the earnestness, high purpose, untiring efforts and unselfish devotion to their purely religious objectives… . The intellectual average and general fitness for their work is also much higher among missionaries than is generally recognized. I soon learned to be proud of my association with so fine a personnel” (Stuart 39).

To balance what he had said about Chinese believers, he added that some “did seek church membership from unworthy motives, yet the martyrdom of thousands in the Boxer uprising of 1900 and the faithfulness of many times that number in spite of unfavorable environment and social as well as family hostility, cannot but evoke our deep respect” (Stuart 39).

In 1908, Stuart wrote an article entitled “The Missionary and the Chinese,” in which “he proposed to avert the dangers in China’s rapid change by Christianizing her and by encouraging her to maintain her human traditions… . Stuart’s argument makes it clear that at the time he saw no incompatibility between Christianity and Chinese culture,” though he believed in the need for evangelism (Shaw 25).


Stuart was invited in 1908 to join the faculty of the newly established Northern and Southern Presbyterian seminary in Nanjing, where he was to teach for the next eleven years. He was given charge of the Department of New Testament Literature and Exegesis. “I soon discovered not only how little I knew, but how fascinating was the subject. I therefore secured all the best aids to its study which were available and found an almost exploratory zest in acquainting myself with the textual, historical, philosophical, devotional and other aspects of New Testament scholarship” (Stuart 40). He also sought to learn how best to teach students who did not have a college education, always trying to secure their interest in the subject.

Moving to Nanjing necessitated the acquisition of their dialect, which he called “a southern corruption Mandarin and one of the ugliest dialects in all China” (Start 41). Once again, his intellectual abilities and usual diligence led to a level of fluency that surpassed that of many missionaries.

Just a list of his activities during these years demonstrates both his achievements and the high regard in which Chinese and Americans held him. He writes:

In time I began attempts at literary work, devotional articles in a Presbyterian weekly paper widely read both inside and outside the denomination, articles in Hasting’s Bible Dictionary, which was being translated into Chinese with adaptations, commentaries, etc. I also wrote articles in English in the International Review of Missions, Chinese Recorder(interdenominational organ of missionary activities published monthly), and other periodicals… . I frequently preached, taught Bible classes and met with religious study groups” (Stuart 41).

Realizing that Chinese preachers found English hard to learn, he decided to provide them with the tools to read and study the Greek New Testament in their own language. He composed an elementary textbook, and then a Greek-Chinese Dictionary, using the latest findings about Koine Greek that were becoming available at the time. This dictionary was a major contribution to the formation of an indigenous Chinese church.

Stuart quickly saw the great need for qualified leaders in the Chinese church. When the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM) began to flourish in China, he was greatly encouraged, especially as, under the leadership of Ding Limei, many promising young men (and women) offered themselves for Christian service. When Ding ceased leading this movement, Stuart took over from him.

To supply the church with qualified pastors and evangelists, Stuart advocated for a much higher standard of theological training and education. Poorly educated preachers would not be able to command respect from Chinese intellectuals and thought leaders, nor could they communicate the gospel adequately to their people. Christian ministers needed to know theology as well as Chinese culture; they must be conversant with the best thinking of both China and the West, especially America.

Stuart aimed at the construction of a truly “Chinese” theology that blended orthodox Christianity with traditional Chinese culture, religion, and philosophy. By “Chinese” he probably meant “Confucian,” since he did not think that Buddhism, Daoism, and Islam could be blended with biblical teaching, while he seemed to find Confucianism to be compatible with the Christian faith.

In contrast to those who advocated evangelism only, Stuart urged missionaries to focus most of their energies, finances, and manpower to the training of qualified Chinese to replace them. He devoted his last years in Nanjing to this project, which formed the central motive and driving concept of his leadership of Yenching University.

Another influence upon him both in Hangzhou and in Nanjing was the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which enlisted capable young university graduates “eager for Western learning or progressive ideas, … opening up for [him] an aspect of missionary effort very different from the prevailing evangelistic methods, including the training of Chinese workers … The application of Christian faith to political, social, intellectual and economic problems was stressed and frankly discussed” (Stuart 43). He frequently spoke at summer conferences held by the YMCA – something that later aroused controversy.

Political activism

Stuart’s political activism began early in his career. As the 1911 revolution unfolded, he enthusiastically supported it. When the American Associated Press asked him to serve as its “war correspondent in Nanjing,” he accepted, and was very happy with this assignment, for he said that it afforded him “a chance to utilize the secular press in the United States for missionary purposes, and to get in touch with the leading men in the government” (Shaw 29). He praised the leaders of the new government, because, he said, “many are products of our missions schools and professing Christians, sons of pastors, or at least Western-educated men free from the old superstitions and ambitious to have their country share in the standards of our Christianized political and social morality” (Shaw 19-20).

From that time until he left China in 1949, Stuart immersed himself in the political life of China, principally by forging friendships with men in positions of power. He spoke and wrote openly about politics in China and Sino-American relations, and he sought to influence both. For almost twenty years, he exerted great efforts to persuade the American government to oppose Japan’s aggrandizement in China. He also “asked his missionary friends [in China] to impress upon the U.S. administration constantly the need for stronger action, to educate the American public on the real issues, and to serve as ears and eyes for the State Department” (Shaw 35).

Theological controversy

His life as a seminary professor “inevitably led to thought on the issues which may be loosely described as conservative or liberal, orthodox or modernistic. All my training and official connections had been with those of the former type; all of my instinctive sympathies and critical studies led me to the latter” (Stuart 44).

Beginning in 1921, conservative Presbyterian theologians charged him with departing from traditional orthodox views on the nature of God, Christ, and the Holy Scriptures. Critics also cited him for “refusing to preach God’s forgiveness of sinners, and by promoting, rather, a gospel of personal, social, and national righteousness” (Shaw 81). They adduced compelling evidence to support their claims, and challenged him to provide evidence of his orthodoxy, but he responded only with vague generalities, for to “engage in such debates, Stuart would have had to detail his true, liberal beliefs in print, which would only have served to provide his opponents with more ammunition” (Shaw 75).

As before, his friendships with “conservative” colleagues prevented him from acrimonious feelings towards them, though he believed that they were unconsciously “influenced … by adventitious circumstances of locality, traditional heritage, temperament, reading and study” – in other words, conservatives were motivated not by adherence to Scripture, but to other mostly environmental factors (Stuart 44).

In particular, the North Kiangsu (Jiangsu) Mission was filled, he says, with men of a disputatious bent. They were always investigating the theology of others whom they suspected of deviation from biblical truths. Stuart himself came under their attack at the end of his tenure at the seminary because of some lectures he had given for the YMCA. The ensuing investigation and trial by the East Hanover Presbytery (his ecclesiastical home in Virginia) ended in his acquittal, but questions remained, and fresh accusations were launched against him later, when he was president of Yenching University. These succeeded in persuading conservative evangelicals not to send their young men there for theological training, thus foiling one of Stuart’s chief purposes for the school.

His biographer states clearly that Stuart’s “theology was in line with the social gospel and liberal theology that had gained momentum in American Protestantism since the turn of the century” (Shaw 28). He shared much in common with President Woodrow Wilson who, like Stuart, “viewed Christianity as synonymous with reform and progress… . [Like all those] of the liberal wing of American Protestantism … [they] shared the same assumptions about the superiority of Western civilization, the Christian burden in heathen lands, the forward concept of progress, and the spiritual and material missions of the American republic” (Shaw 37).

Yenching University

In 1919, Stuart became the first president of Yenching University, which had been created by the merger of several other schools. Over time, under his vigorous leadership, “Yenching became the preeminent private university in China, setting the standard for the other twelve Christian colleges and universities. With ties to Harvard and Princeton, it received generous support from American benefactors for its splendid new campus outside Peking” (MacInnis 649).

With no experience, he learned how to raise funds through assiduous cultivation of friendships with wealthy people and the help of a professional fund-raising firm. Over the next few years, he spent most of the working seasons in the United States, “doing something” he writes, “for which I had no special fitness and neglecting what would have seemed to be my primary function” of teaching (Stuart 58).

Desiring to affirm and celebrate China’s ancient cultural heritage while drawing upon the latest advances in Western knowledge, he oversaw the construction of a campus marked by buildings in the Chinese style, in which both Chinese studies and Western sciences, social sciences, and languages were taught to elite students by outstanding professors. He strengthened the university by forming ties with Harvard University and the Rockefeller Foundation.

His “task assumed a four-fold aspect: its Christian purpose; its academic standards and vocational courses; its relation to the Chinese environment and contribution to international understanding and good will; its financial resources and physical equipment” (Stuart 65-66).

Stuart sought to make the Christian purpose of the school evident, but without engaging in proselytism. No student was compelled to attend chapel or join a Christian fellowship, nor to profess faith in Christ. On the other hand, he recruited faculty who were committed to Christianity, admitted a core of Christian students, and supported the formation of the Yenching University Christian Fellowship, which was directed by a committee composed of faculty, students, and worker representatives, and which was totally independent of the university administration.

Stuart believed that “the unique contribution of missionary education lay in moral training or ‘character building’” (Shaw 87). To further this end, he started the “Sheng-ming She,” or “New Life Society,” which published a journal, the Life Monthly. Members of the School of Religion joined with Stuart in this program. They published another journal, Truth Weekly, which later merged with Life Monthly to form the most influential Christian periodical in China. Stuart wrote for both of these magazines, which openly promoted theological views ranging from “Christocentric liberalism to social gospel” (Shaw 89).

He also established a Christian fellowship group, which was administratively independent of the university but really integrated into its life, being led by a committee of faculty and students. Leighton Stuart believed that this fellowship was successful in promoting Christian values and ethical ideals among the entire university, mostly through personal example and the combination of Christian commitment with social service. His own winsome personality played a key role in the effectiveness of the group. We should note that the fellowship was definitely not an evangelical or evangelistic society, as Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship later became.

Stuart’s understanding of the role of Christianity in China guided his religious and cultural programs at the university. He believed that “the West should use the Christian gospel in China only to supplement, not to destroy, the noblest aspirations of Confucian teaching” (Shaw 55). For him “the role of the Christian movement in China … should consist not only of imparting the Christian faith to the Chinese but should also embrace the preservation and revitalization of the finest portions of China’s cultural heritage” (Shaw 56).

Stuart was especially proud of the quality of the department of Chinese studies; the high level of English proficiency and the creation of a truly bilingual institution; the addition of a medical college that became the pre-eminent medical school in China; the women’s college and the nursing school; the College of Natural Sciences; the College of Public Affairs; vocational courses that prepared students to earn a living after graduation (especially the school of journalism); strong engineering courses; and the School of Religion.

Stuart always wanted Yenching to develop into a completely Chinese university but pursued this policy with reservations. He did appoint positions of academic and administrative leadership, including the chancellorship. On the other hand, he retained his position as president, retaining effective control. Otherwise, he feared that the Christian nature of the university would not be maintained. A fully empowered chancellor or president would not, he thought, be able to withstand the pressure of secularization that had gripped the political and cultural elites. But any dilution of the Christian character of the school would alienate American donors, who supported Yenching largely because they thought it was a Christian university.

Not surprisingly, this kind of foreign control angered the Chinese whom he had employed and led to a constant turnover among chancellors.

The faculty of the School of Religion became almost totally Chinese, as Stuart recruited top scholars who “were free to work out forms of worship, doctrinal statements, etc., in harmony with the Chinese heritage, and to create a Chinese Christian literature” (Stuart 71). This complete academic freedom produced a religious studies department noted for its promotion of what would be termed “indigenous theology.” In essence, the most famous professors, such as Wu Leichuan and Zhao Zichen, propounded a Sinicized version of liberal theology.

Stuart fostered a climate of complete equality by having Chinese and foreign faculty live in the same type of housing and treating them as his associates, rather than subordinates.

Student demonstrations swept through Chinese colleges from the 1920s onwards. Stuart believed that were usually and skillfully led by manipulators of popular psychology, leaving him with “a wholesome dread of mass psychology especially when it affected Chinese students with their peculiar weaknesses and social inhibitions” (Stuart 79).

He always hoped Yenching would become a force for international understanding and cooperation, so he forged institutional connections with Oxford University and the governments of France, Germany, and Italy, from whom he gained financial support for Chinese to study in those countries and for foreigners to learn about Chinese civilization at Yenching.

Believing that “a Christian university should represent a blend of religious faith, the scientific spirit and method, and fearless unhampered inquiry,” he and two of his colleagues came up with a motto for the school: “Freedom through Truth for Service,” which combined two sayings of Jesus into an expression of what he thinks became the philosophy that permeated and governed the entire institution.

Political views and involvement

When students in China exploded into protests over the betrayal of China by the Great Powers after World War I, Stuart made known his sympathies for them. “In all the troubled years that followed, whenever the students felt the urge to join in similar demonstrations, they knew my attitude. It was a very real bond of understanding and had a profound influence upon the status of Yenching University during that turbulent period of Chinese history” (Stuart 104). Later, the students of Peking University (which included the merged Yenching University) took the lead in the 1989 demonstrations that threatened to topple the Communist regime.

He consistently supported Chinese nationalism as expressed in attempts to have the unequal treaties and Boxer protocols rescinded and in protests against Japanese aggression in China in the 1930s. He even went to the United States to appeal to President Franklin Roosevelt to take a stronger stand against Japanese actions in Asia, speaking and writing to arouse the sympathy of the American people for China. These efforts gained him the admiration and affection of many Chinese, where his “pro-Chinese activities in the United States were widely reported and were also the subject of many editorials.”

He also defended the Nationalist government’s policy of not provoking the Japanese to expand their intrusions into China too soon, believing Chiang Kai-shek that they must wait until China was stronger before risking war.

Soon after assuming the lead of the University, Stuart “began to cultivate Chinese officials in order to help them understand the purposes of our Christian university and to secure gifts from them if possible as evidence of their goodwill toward Christian education” (Stuart 105). Traveling all over the country, he met and befriended officials from all factions of Chinese politics, believing that “this was the best insurance” for the future of the school.

He formed lasting friendships with many of these influential men and won some supporters for Yenching University. He got to know President Sun Yat-sen. Frequent travels to the United States likewise enabled him to build relationships with people in high places, including Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt.

After some significant success in securing donations from Chinese sources, Stuart began to doubt the wisdom of this approach, since it might lead to a loss of its independence as a Christian school. So he suspended these efforts, while continuing to secure strong support from political leaders for Yenching as a Christian institution. In this effort, he succeeded splendidly.

Stuart’s autobiography provides fascinating vignettes of some of the prominent men with whom he established cordial and ongoing relationships, including several provincial governors and both the “Old Marshall” of Manchuria, Zhang Zuoling, and his son, the “Young Marshall,” Zhang Xueliang. Clearly, he was intimately aware of the inner workings of the highest levels of leadership for several decades. He knew the “Christian General,” Feng Yu-Xiang, well enough to say that “he was always a rather superficial and immature believer” (Stuart 112).

The most influential person with whom Stuart developed a friendship was Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshr). Beginning around 1926, he followed Chiang’s career closely, meeting often with him long before Stuart became ambassador. Though fully aware of the criticisms of Chiang which could be read and heard on all sides, and cognizant of the Generalissimo’s colossal failures as a military commander, Stuart esteemed him highly for his personal honesty, frugality and discipline, courage, equanimity in times of national disaster and peril, and total commitment to the Three Principles of the People formulated by his teacher and hero, Sun Yat-sen. He also believed that Chiang sincerely believed in Christ and sought to draw his strength from, and pattern his life after, his Lord and Savior.

He expressed his admiration for Chiang and his wife several times in writing also, including writing a forward for the book Chiang wrote after his capture and release in Xian in 1936.

Almost thirty years later, he quoted words from an article he had written in 1937 about the Generalissimo:

Consummate skill in dealing with people of widely diverse types, high courage, indefatigable energy, are among the qualities that have made him a great soldier and sagacious executive …
[Stuart refers to Chiang’s] genuinely patriotic purpose and unswerving devotion to the national welfare … [and his] habit of personal religious culture to the point where it has become a conscious source of guidance, inspiration and moral strength …
The writer’s personal contacts with General Chiang have led him to … an unquestioning confidence in the transparent sincerity of his patriotic purpose and in the stern purity of his personal life, an admiration tinged with affection, and a clear conviction that China is extremely fortunate to have one with his character and capacity actively leading the nation in this supremely critical period of its rebirth and rebuilding (Stuart 118-120).

This description of Chiang does much to explain Stuart’s unwavering support of the Nationalist government, despite its many faults and failings, for most of the rest of his time in China. With one brief exception late in the civil war, Stuart remained personally and professionally loyal to Chiang despite the latter’s fatal flaws and failings, and he earnestly sought to further the higher ideals of the Nationalist movement until their final defeat and withdrawal to Taiwan.

Stuart expressed his disapproval of Communism early in his career in Nanjing. He saw the Communist Party as a threat not only to China but also to the university since it had been branded as a tool of American imperialism. This strong anti-Communist tone changed markedly around 1936, when he began to describe the movement as “agrarian discontent,” and downplayed its connection with Soviet Russian Communism. “From 1938 onward, Stuart’s attitude toward Chinese communism because increasingly favorable until the late 1940s, when he reverted to his earlier attitude of suspicion and opposition” (Shaw 107).

While serving as president of Yenching University, mostly at the behest of Chiang Kai-shek, Stuart engaged in high-level diplomacy between competing factions within China. Though some of his efforts failed, his personal negotiations often succeeded in bring warring parties together. His skill as an intermediary during these decades no doubt led to his nomination by General George Marshall to be the ambassador to China for the United States.

Leighton Stuart not only nurtured associations with those in high position, however. He, his wife, and his mother also took an interest in a young boy who came to study at Yenching, encouraging the lad in a time of personal and family crisis. The resulting friendship deepened into a close working relationship in which “Philip Fugh” proved to be of inestimable worth to Stuart and the university.

War against Japan

Japan invaded China on July 7, 1937, and captured Beijing on July 28. Despite advice from many, Stuart decided not to move the Yenching to some safe spot in Free China, unlike many other universities. From the start, he dealt with the Japanese with a mixture of showing “no fear of their armed might while heartily cordial in manner” in a way that “enabled me to meet their truculence or break their nervous reticence in many a delicate encounter” (Stuart 128). Stuart’s firm actions to preserve Yenching’s independence revealed both his courage and his tactical skills as a leader. During the first four years of Japanese occupation, Stuart developed close relationships with the leaders of the puppet government that the invaders had installed. He also made sure to communicate often and directly with high Japanese officials.

From these and other contacts, he acquired an intimate and extensive knowledge of the situation of occupied China, which he passed on to the university trustees – and thence to the American government – as well as to Nationalist leaders. His analysis of the failures of Japan’s militaristic policy in China was extremely insightful, as were his recommendations to them on how to work with Chiang Kai-shek in their stated goal of defeating Chinese communism. On the other hand, at this period in his life he still misunderstood and downplayed the real threat of the communists to either Japan or Nationalist China.

As the war dragged on, some Japanese generals wanted to negotiate a peace agreement with Chiang Kai-shek, and asked Stuart to act as an unofficial peace intermediary. Altogether, he made four trips to see Chiang Chongqing (Chungking) to present Japanese proposals and relay Chiang’s responses. For reasons outside Stuart’s control, all four peace missions failed, but they demonstrate the high regard in which both Japanese and Chinese leaders held him.

He helped students to return home through enemy lines, but refused to tell the Japanese who helped him do so safely. When he demonstrated to them that his school did not rely on any American funds, they were incredulous. He made frequent trips to see Generalissimo Chiang, about which the Japanese interrogated him, but his candid answers disarmed them.

Stuart also invested a great deal of time and energy in trying to influence America’s policy in the Far East. In letters to President Roosevelt, the State Department, and his university trustees (who passed them on to the U.S. Government), he urged that America provide as much economic and diplomatic support for China as possible and deny any direct or indirect aid to Japan. Several of his recommendations clearly influenced the policy of the Americans; others were rejected, but all received careful consideration. Clearly, Stuart was recognized as extremely knowledgeable and highly influential, so much so that he felt justified in assuming that when he spoke, others, including President Roosevelt, would listen.

To put it mildly, Stuart’s engagement in high-level, though informal, diplomacy was nothing short of remarkable for a missionary and academic with no official government position. That would come later.

Because America was not at war with Japan for the first four years of the occupation, both Stuart and Yenching – an institution affiliated with America – enjoyed freedom. All that changed when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and other American and British bases on December 7, 1941. After a brief period of relatively comfortable confinement in the home of another American educator, Stuart and two others were kept in very cramped quarters for almost four years.

His account of this long internment mixes candor, humor, and precise details in a most graceful manner, typical of his entire autobiography. It turned out that Stuart was such a prominent and influential personage that he received special treatment from the Japanese, and his imprisonment in an unknown location produced extensive speculation in the American press. The U.S. Government did all it could to secure his release, but in vain, probably because the Japanese planned to use Stuart as a peace mediator in the highly unlikely – to their mind – but still conceivable event that they would be defeated.

One passage in this chapter stands out in stark contrast to almost everything else in the entire book, and yet it fully accords with the tenor and tone of his descriptions of his own personal faith. It is worth quoting at length. He writes that his previous experiences and “external circumstances have been pleasant,” but:

Then came suddenly the event long foreshadowed and feared which has brought to me the greatest sense of disaster which I can imagine … We are caught on the surface of a catastrophic storm and are flung – as are innumerable others, most of them less fortunate – into an eddy from which we cannot foresee when or how we shall be released. But looking forward to that time, and unless my old life can be restored … I shall be an old man, bereft of the only home in which I could be usefully contented, unfitted for ordinary employment in America, my slight resources practically wiped out by what has taken place, a lonely survivor from an enterprise in which those once comrades cannot but be scattered and with its organized existence hopelessly defunct.
There has thus come upon me that aspect of religion which gives consolation in sorrow and frustration and a better understanding of those who suffer. I have often noticed how largely religious, and especially devotional, books deal with problems of human grief, discouragement, despair, whereas in my own case religion has been chiefly the source of an elan inspiring congenial activities and tending to neutralize their more selfish or sordid motives.
I now have the opportunity to test out and to profit by Christian faith as a solace in time of bitter disappointment and when facing a future full of harrowing uncertainties. If – as I have often preached or urged upon others in private – it does not so much matter what happens to any of us as how one takes what happens, then I now have a chance to apply my own medicine. In this case I can almost welcome the present experience and prepare myself not to lose its possible benefits (Stuart 147-148).

These exquisitely elegant words clearly come from a committed Christian, yet they do not mention God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, prayer, forgiveness of sins, hope of eternal life, or any other cardinal truth of Christianity. One need only to compare them with the writings of J. Hudson Taylor when undergoing even worse sufferings to notice the difference between a refined liberal Christian sensitivity and evangelical piety. They could just as easily have come from the pen of a Seneca or Boethius.

G. Wright Doyle

This concludes Part 1 of 2. Part 2 may be found here.


Doyle, G. Wright, ed. Wise Man from the East: Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng. Critique of Indigenous Theology; Critique of Humanism. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013.

MacInnis, Donald E. “John Leighton Stuart.” Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, MI: By permission of The Gale Group, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998.

Mao Zedong. “Farewell, Leighton Stuart.” Accessed August 18, 2023 at https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-4/mswv4_67.htm.

Shaw, Yu-ming. An American Missionary in China: John Leighton Stuart and Chinese-American Relations. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Studies, Harvard University, and Harvard University Press, 1992.

Starr, Chloe. Chinese Theology: Text and Context. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

Stuart, John L. Fifty Years in China: The Memoirs of John Leighton Stuart, Missionary and Ambassador (1954). New York: Random House, 1954. Reprinted by Andesite Press, 2016.

Yao Xiyi. The Fundamentalist-Movement among Protestant Missionaries in China, 1920-1937. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

Director, Global China Center; English Editor, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.