Despite his relatively short ministry of preaching, teaching, writing, and healing through prayer, he made a huge impact on his own generation and has left a lasting legacy.
John Song was born in Hong Chek Village, Putian, Fujian Province on September 27, 1901, the sixth child and fourth son of Sung Xue Lian, a Methodist pastor. Given the name Zhu En (“God’s Grace”) at birth, he later took on another name, Shangjie (“Noble and frugal”). Song’s father was idolized and imitated by the young boy, who himself was known as “little pastor” because he accompanied his father and even preached to his classmates. After some more training from his father, he also spoke to other church meetings, including Sunday worship. From his father he learned to keep a diary. The growing library that his father collected became food for Sung’s inquisitive mind, as he read widely. Unsurprisingly, he soon became the outstanding student in the local school. In time, he helped to edit the Revival Magazine that his father published; this was the beginning of his literary work.
He also imitated his father’s fiery temper even as a boy. Young Sung and his father frequently clashed, resulting often in the rod of discipline. Later in life he wrote, however, “I thank God for such a father who loved me, taught me and fed me with spiritual food. What I am today is all from my father” (Tow 46).
In 1909, he had witnessed the “Hinghwa (Xinghua) Pentecost,” a memorable revival in his father’s church, when the Holy Spirit fell upon everyone in the congregation as a visiting preaching spoke on Christ in Gethsemane. Though Sung was deeply moved, he was not yet born again. One lesson he did learn, however, was the necessity of preaching repentance as the first step in revival.
After primary and secondary education in mission schools, he aspired to do further study in America. His family had no money for such an expensive undertaking, but a Western missionary lady brought him a letter from a “Miss Kan” in Beijing. She promised to recommend him for a scholarship to Ohio Western University for a scholarship and to help him find a job when he arrived. Former students of his father’s schools also provided funds, so that he was able to go to America to study Bible and theology in preparation for Christian ministry in China.
Education in America
When he arrived in the United States, however, he chose to study chemistry instead, enrolling in Ohio Wesleyan University in 1920. There he “found a bosom friend in Dr. Rollin H. Waler, Professor of Bible. He called him his ‘American father’” (Tow 60). Other American families opened their homes to him, providing the foreign student with love and warmth. Despite working at several manual jobs in factories and fields, he completed his work for the B.Sc. in three years. Overwork seems to have contributed to the onset of piles, for which he underwent surgery, but which afflicted him for the rest of his life and finally led to his death. After graduating in 1923, he entered The Ohio State University, from which he earned a Master’s degree in Chemistry in 1924 and a Ph.D. in 1926, winning high academic honors all along the way. Friends told him that he was “too bright to be a preacher,” and encouraged him to pursue a secular career.
During these years of study, he gradually neglected his habit of daily Bible reading and prayer and drifted away from God. The liberal theology and Social Gospel teachings of his professors and pastors also influenced him. Still, his earlier experiences with God could not be entirely forgotten. His conscience tormented him and he knew no peace.
Although he briefly held a position as assistant professor of chemistry and was offered teaching posts at Peking University and elsewhere, in 1926 he finally honored his early commitment to study theology and entered Union Theological Seminary in New York. There he continued to read broadly; he later claimed to have translated the Dao De Jing into English; and explored philosophy and history on his own. For months, he suffered intense agony of soul, mostly from guilt but also, perhaps, from a failed romance (his parents had already pledged him to a girl in China). He was at first influenced by his theologically liberal teachers, and completely lost his faith. but everything changed when he attended evangelistic meetings in January of 1927. The appearance and preaching of fourteen-year-old of Uldine Utley, who spoke powerfully on the Cross of Christ, and who promised “rest” to God’s people, brought his crisis to a head. For several weeks, he wrestled with God and could not sleep. “A letter to Rollin Walker … appeared ‘incoherent and as the product of an overstrained brain’” (Xi 140). Finally, he underwent a dramatic conversion. “Jesus found me in Room 405 of an atheistic seminary,” he wrote in his testimony (Xi 141).
Profoundly transformed, Song later wrote that he zealously evangelized his professors, warning them of eternal punishment if they did not repent. To Harry Emerson Fosdick, a leading spokesman of the Social Gospel, he said, “You are of the devil” (Xi 141). Seminary faculty and administrators thought that he had gone insane, as did a psychiatrist, and for some good reasons. He wrote and said things which appeared to come from a deranged mind. Eventually, he agreed to be admitted to an insane asylum. During his confinement, he read the Bible through at least three or four times, though he wrote later that he had read it forty times in seven months, albeit not “word by word.” His claim is not entirely incredible, for he was a very fast reader. Each time, he used a different method of Bible study, recording his thoughts in a notebook.
Still, even these notes sometimes seemed bizarre, with far-fetched allegory, mystical symbols, and references to a “shenmu, the Queen Mother” (Ireland, John Song, 29).
Through the efforts of his friend Dr. William Walker, he was released, and he returned to China in 1927. The Chinese consul who was instrumental in securing his freedom later told William Schubert, Sung’s friend and biographer, that at the time of his leaving the mental hospital, Sung “was no more crazy than you or I, but he had such a good case of real, old-fashioned religion, and it was so unusual there, that they thought he was crazy” (Schubert 15). It seems that his earlier insanity had responded well to rest, medical treatment, Bible reading, and prayer.
Five Periods of his Ministry
In 1931, Sung told William Schubert that God had revealed to him that he would have fifteen years of ministry, divided into five periods. Events proved the accuracy of Sung’s statement. As seen later, these periods were: 1. The “Water” period, of preparation, beginning when he returned to China; 2. The “Door” period, when doors opened to him as more and more churches invited him to preach; 3. The “Dove” period, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on Sung on his hearers; 4. The “Blood” time, when China bled from the atrocities inflicted by the invading Chinese, and Sung’s wounds began to bleed profusely as he persevered in preaching; and 5. The “Tomb” period, when he was shut up in a hospital or in his rooms convalescing from several surgeries, when people came to him from all over (Schubert 23–24).
1. The “Water” Period of Preparation
Though he was returning to China as a successful student with a highly-valued PhD, Sung renounced all this when, according to his later testimony, he threw his golden doctoral keys and most of his diplomas overboard on the voyage home and then donned a simple peasant’s gown as soon as he could. This was his way of identifying with the lowest class in society and imitating the lives of great saints like Francis of Assisi. Though he was near-sighted, he also stopped wearing eyeglasses, perhaps to avoid looking too “modernized.” He gave his Ph.D. diploma to his mother, all the money he had saved to his father, and his books and clothes to his brother. Thenceforth, he lived as a poor itinerant preacher, seeking to be dead to the allurements of the world.
After some hesitation, he finally married Yu Jin Hua (“Jean”) in December of 1927, who had been chosen for him by his parents years earlier. At first, Sung taught chemistry and Bible at Methodist Christian High School in Fujian to help put his younger brother through college, engaging in evangelism on the weekends, but he resigned after one year. Meanwhile, the Guomingdang (KMT; Nationalist Party) became unhappy with him for refusing to have his students bow to the picture of Sun Yat-sen – an action that he considered to be a form of idolatry – and initiated a campaign of rumors, threats, and opposition that lasted for the rest of his ministry, even though he always taught that Christians must obey the government.
Soon after returning to China, Sung was admitted as a probationer – that is, a preacher with a provisional license – by the Methodist church, a position that was renewed the next year. He was also appointed conference evangelist by the Methodist conference in 1928 and 1929. Later, he was appointed “evangelist at large” for the Methodist church, a title he held until his death.
During this period of his life, the conversion process that began in New York resulted in Sung’s inner transformation. “Jesus Christ became ‘the integrating presence and force in his life’” (Ireland, John Song, 51).
At the request of the Methodist Bishop of the region, he joined up with an evangelistic band and traveled around the province of Fujian, preaching and teaching in small, rural churches for three years. One of his early listeners wrote that “the simplicity and earnestness of Dr. Song’s messages has stirred church members, workers, and students far more deeply than anyone one at the time realized” (Lim 98). A missionary said that Sung “seems to have the whole Bible on the tip of his tongue as well as engraved on his heart… . He seemed perfectly at home in any section of the Bible” (Lim 99). Sometimes he preached as many as eight nor nine times a day. At this period, however, his exegesis was often fanciful and far-fetched, as he sought a “spiritual” meaning in the text.
His service as an itinerant evangelist convinced Sung that “a strong Bible teaching under the guidance of the Holy Spirit was the only way to revive the church. He called it the ‘Bible Revival.’ … [He] also found that pastors were the central link to the health of the church. Of greatest importance to pastors was their renewed life in Christ and power in the Spirit. Other factors such as level of education, knowledge, and abilities were secondary. What concerned Sung most was the lack of Spirit-filled leaders to sustain ongoing revivals in the church” (Lim 109).
As he traveled, he “gathered a group of young men and young women whom he trained as lay preachers” (Tow 92). This eventually became “an itinerant theological school” with “five students who lived a peripatetic life with their teacher” (Tow 95). “Beginning from 1930, John Sung devised a plan to provide training for rural preachers so that they could be grounded in the Bible. He grouped over 100 churches into 10 sub-districts for training purposes” (Lim 100). He also “gave much time to start a family worship movement that involved a thousand homes” (Tow 97). Even at this early stage, Sung’s vision for training others and organizational skills were apparent. Already evident also was his persistent pride, which he confessed to fellow Methodists in 1937, admitting that he was unhappy toiling away in rural areas and wanted to “show off” his gifts in a larger arena. His longing for “greener pastures” ended when a severe case of cholera stopped him from going north. He saw this as God’s discipline.
One of his biographers asserts that “Sung’s pride was one of the driving forces in his life” (Lim 178). Another, however, was struck by Sung’s humility in 1935. When people were healed through his prayers, “Dr Sung was careful not to usurp any glory, and would rebuke sharply any who mentioned his name or gave credit to him” (Tow 37).
In 1930, partly because his district was plagued by Communist bandits, the bishop appointed Sung to study the literacy and mass education program of James Yen (Yan Yangchu) near Beijing, but he cut short his visit because he did not think that this effort would bear spiritual fruit.
2. The “Door” Period; November 1930 to November 1933
After returning to Shanghai, he was invited to preach at Nanchang, where William Schubert and another man had been praying for revival for fifty days. The state of their congregation and of Methodist churches in their area was deplorable. Both pastors and missionaries, influenced by liberal theology and the Social Gospel, were more committed to the world than to God and the gospel. Schubert’s prayers were answered when Sung began to speak in their high school and the Holy Spirit fell upon students and teachers alike. The same happened when he spoke in churches. Many pastors confessed their sins and were dramatically and permanently transformed. As a PhD in chemistry, Sung was also able to answer questions that students had about the Bible and science.
More important, however, was his private devotional life. Schubert found him “on his knees by the desk with his open Bible… . He also made careful notes of what God told him through the Bible… . He was saturated with God’s Word” (Schubert 46, 50). At this point, his preaching was still marked by esoteric interpretations, including unique allegories. One missionary said that he was “theologically immature, delighting in torturous allegorical exegesis, and constantly inclined to go off on tangents” (Ireland, John Song, 65). But his intense study of the Bible inspired his listeners to see it as a Book with untold riches.
The Nanchang revival was “the turning point in his whole ministry” (Tow 108). This was the beginning of the “Door” period, and it was totally unexpected by John Sung. He was surprised by the extraordinary work of the Spirit as he preached and multitudes were moved to repent of their sins, trust in Christ, and dedicate their lives to the service of God and the gospel. For the next twelve years, he would witness the same effects of the Spirit upon himself and his hearers.
He returned to Shanghai, where he conferred with his mentor, the Rev. Tang Renxi, from whom he learned that missionaries are the slowest to repent. At the invitation of Jennie Hughes, he joined up with the Bethel Worldwide Evangelistic Band in 1930 and served along with Andrew Gih, Frank Ling, Philip Lee, and Lincoln Nieh in northeastern, northern, and southern China. After working with them for a year, he became a formal member of the Bethel Mission, overcoming some of his reservations. For one thing, he thought they should stay in one place for a month. For another, he objected to the rule that all donations must be shared with the Mission, since he believed he could support his father and family better if he could keep some of the gifts coming to him.
We should note that although he lived very simply when on the road, he was able to purchase a home for his wife and children in the French concession of Shanghai. He was not rich, and he did not pursue a luxurious lifestyle, but he was not poor.
As he and the Band traveled all over China holding revival meetings, he gleaned a great deal from the others in the Band, who taught him how to preach more faithfully to the literal meaning of Scripture and less allegorically. In 1933, he finally began to speak in Mandarin rather than English, having learned from his teammate who interpreted for him and having studied it in Shanghai the previous summer. From the well-organized pattern of the Bethel Band, he also learned how to use music to reinforce the sermon. As editor of the Bethel Mission magazine, he saw how the printed word could be used to spread the gospel. Because his preaching produced such extraordinary effects, through the Bethel Band’s wide network he became nationally famous.
Almost from the beginning, however, Sung had conflicts with his teammates. One major reason was the competition between him and Andrew Gih, also a gifted preacher. Their strong personalities and personal ambitions often created tensions. Despite repeated efforts to overcome these in Christian love, the conflicts eventually led to Sung’s separation from the Band.
3. The “Dove” Period; November 1933 to November 1936
The two women running the mission (Dora Yu and Jennie Hughes) wrongly suspected him of diverting funds to his own use and intending to set up an independent ministry, so they forced him to leave the mission in 1933. It even seems that they treated him abominably. After his dismissal, he decided to become a fully independent itinerant revivalist and evangelist. During his last preaching mission with them in Hunan province, a foreign missionary said that “for a whole week, twice a day, for two or more hours at each meeting,” Sung “poured out a living stream of searching Bible teaching, agonized prayer and ecstatic praise, all intensified by vivid acting, scathing sarcasm and exuberant humor,” and all this despite his internal emotional turmoil (Lim 165) .
He found the most exuberant welcome in cities, where thousands of lower middle class urbanites flocked to his meetings. He spoke to their particular trials and temptations, such as financial insecurity and the lure of city entertainment and fashion. With his emphasis upon forgiveness of sin and the power to live a new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he gave them a new perspective on their precarious and often boring existence.
During this period and the next, he tirelessly traversed the roads and rails of China, and made five epic journeys (1935–1940) to Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Indonesia, as well as the Japanese-occupied island of Taiwan. Preaching in large churches and small, in major cities and rural villages, he attracted huge crowds, many thousands of whom were deeply moved by his preaching, and responded with weeping, open confession of sin, and expressions of commitment to Christ. He battled both external opposition, including slander and threats of death, and internal church division and strife, not to mention his own physical weakness and pain, but he kept pushing on, passionate in his desire to see people come to saving faith in Christ.
4. “Soaring” with the Power of the Holy Spirit and the “Blood” Period; November 1936 to November 1939
After Japan invaded China, Sung braved danger and difficulties to travel through war-torn areas. As China “bled,” his old wounds began to bleed, too, causing him indescribable pain and agony. Through this severe suffering, he identified with his suffering countrymen, learned to lean on Christ for daily strength, accepted God’s discipline for his sins, and demonstrated extraordinary courage, faith, perseverance, and faith.
John Sung convened and taught at the Third Nationwide Bible Institute, July 24 through August 9, 1937. During this time, he led the 1,500 delegates through a study of nineteen books of the Bible, including six from the Old Testament. “Messages from the Third Bible Institute were compiled and published as Messages of the Bible Institute in South China Area. It became a popular reference book for many Chinese pastors… . The book reads like a ‘study Bible,’ with annotations mostly gleaned from commentaries. It provided a source for sermon preparation so scarce in China during the lean years of the war, and later, under toughened governmental control and crackdowns on Christianity” (Lim 211).
In August, 1937, Sung commenced his longest and most arduous journey. The Japanese invasion was creating havoc, and terror gripped people’s hearts. Traveling conditions were extremely difficult and hazardous, but Sung pressed on, despite excruciating pain that wracked his body and wore him out. “He had to endure the cold, hunger, and long waits for transportation” (Lim 213). In God’s providence, he repeatedly preached in a city that the Japanese attacked shortly after he had left. In retrospect, it is clear that God using him to prepare believers for the coming years of suffering and persecution.
In May of 1938, Sung returned to his home province of Fujian, and spoke in his hometown of Xinghua. Years before, he had alienated Methodist leaders and missionaries by his fierce criticisms, but now he had become “much gentler.” As an indication of the improved relationships, the Xinghua Methodist conference voted that he should be ordained as an elder in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Bishop John Gowdy officiated at the ceremony.
Immediately thereafter, Sung left for French-Indochina, where his preaching once again brought revival to dormant churches. He told people that he had not come as a teacher, for then he would have to return repeatedly, but “I have come to bring you power. When you are filled with the Holy Ghost, you will not need any man to teach you” (Lim 217). A foreign missionary wrote because of Sung’s visit the “Holy Spirit had infused the Christian leaders [in Saigon] with power and passion for evangelism and sanctified living” (Lim 217). “One significant outcome of Sung’s visit [to Saigon] was the spawning of new churches that came about through the setting up of witnessing bands” (Lim 218). Traversing the mountains into Yunnan, he brought similar blessings there. Another missionary reported, “There has been much confession of sin followed by a new zeal for the salvation of the lost” (Lim 219).
5. The Tomb” Period, 1939–1942, during which Sung tried to recuperate from six painful surgeries
After his last preaching tour in Indonesia, Sung’s old illness finally forced him to seek treatment and to cease from his incessant evangelistic labors. He was moved to a suburb of Beijing called Fragrant Hills, where his family joined him from Shanghai. Even during
these years of enforced “inactivity,” however, John Sung exercised a powerful ministry.
People came to him from all over China, both to seek wisdom and to pray for him. He usually held three meetings a day, preaching from his bed. Nor did he forget the preaching bands he had formed and sent out. With two volunteer ladies serving as secretaries, he wrote pastoral letters of profound wisdom and urgent exhortations to them. He also composed fifteen new hymns.
Knowing that they were praying for him, he said, “These grinding sufferings are necessary to take away our dross, so that we might face our Lord without fear” (Tow 235).
“China’s John the Baptist”
His preaching came from the Bible, which he studied carefully, reading eleven chapters daily. Usually, he would go through a passage of the Bible verse-by-verse, explaining the meaning and applying it to people’s lives. He employed parables, real-life stories, and his own personal testimony as illustrations of biblical truths. Sung would also embellish his sermons with diagrams and pictures on the blackboard and drive home major points with choruses and hymns every few minutes. Sometimes he would call for volunteers to ascend the platform, then hang placards around their necks with specific sins (“lying,” “stealing,” “adultery”) written on them. He used the Ten Commandments to expose sins, including those of which Chinese were particularly guilty.
Quite frequently, he rebuked the wrongdoing of individuals, often pointing out or naming church leaders whose misdeeds he had learned about from their church members. He wrote that a preacher must speak on “Repentance; Heaven and Hell, and the cross and the blood of Christ; … hating of sin and complete consecration; … being filled with the Holy Spirit; … the life of faith, as well as … love… . In addition, one must live a life of hope.” In particular, he stressed the necessity of Christians to follow in the footsteps of Christ, bearing the cross of suffering with faith and joy. The return of Christ figured largely in his preaching, as did reminders that soon all our needs would be more than fully supplied in a New Heaven and a New Earth. He emphasized holiness and living a victorious Christian life by the power of the Holy Spirit, but he did not believe in sinless perfection in this life.
The Rev. William E. Shubert, who watched Sung for many years and became his close friend, wrote in 1976 that “Dr John Sung was probably the greatest preacher of this century. I have heard almost all the great preachers from 1910 until now, including [he names several famous preachers], and Billy Graham. Yet John Sung surpassed them all in pulpit power, attested by amazing and enduring results” (Schubert 14).
To make a more lasting impact, he organized several Bible conferences, some of them lasting a full month, in which he would expound the entire Bible, book by book. “What drew Dr Sung’s converts to him again and again was the rich, graduated Biblical contents not only of his sermons but also of his ever-refreshing Bible studies” (Tow 207). After attending one of the Bible conferences, William Shubert wrote, “I learned more from Dr. Sung in three weeks than I learned in three years in theological seminary” (Schubert, 14). His oral instruction was supplemented by his published testimony and some expository sermons covering the entire Bible, in several volumes, as well as articles in Christian periodicals. While he was with the Bethel Mission, he also edited and wrote for their publication.
An excellent actor, Song would play the parts of the various biblical characters whose story he was telling. He paced back and forth across the stage; used “props” such as a small coffin to represent the dark mass of sin within each of us; broke into song or prayer in the midst of his sermons; and otherwise kept his audience enthralled. He composed many songs, which he would teach the congregation to sing with him. A book of these was collected and widely used.
Such dramatic platform activity – some would call them “antics – added to exegesis that was, especially in his earlier years, allegorical and fanciful, earned him the epithet “Sung the madman” (Xi 149). Those close to him, however, saw him as one who was obsessed with God, the gospel, and the eternal destiny of souls.
As an indirect product of his preaching ministry, some of his interpreters later became freelance evangelists.
Everywhere he went, John Song sought earnestly to promote church unity. He attacked abuse by leaders, exhorted members to forgive and love each other, and taught them how to follow the meekness of Christ in their relationships with each other. He almost always spoke where he had been invited by church leaders, and almost always in church buildings, except when large crowds made preaching outside or under a temporary shelter necessary. Frequently, his visit would bring pastors from different denominations together, producing lasting friendships and other unified efforts. In contrast to Wang Mingdao and Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng), he did not encourage believers to withdraw from their churches, though these had been founded by missionaries and were sometimes under missionary control.
At the same time, he often criticized Chinese pastors for their lack of spiritual vitality, spirit of worldliness, self-seeking attitudes, and especially for promoting liberal theology. His fearless rebukes alienated many. Sometimes, he evinced total contempt for “mainline’ missionaries and church leaders and their man-made rules. His disdain for formal theological education and claims to be directly taught by the Holy Spirit seemed to smack of arrogance.
In later years, he softened his criticisms and focused more on the gospel of salvation through Christ.
Dealing with Seekers and the Repentant
After his sermons, Sung would often meet for hours with individuals and with groups of those who had repented of their sins, or were seeking to know God. He did not accept a mere profession of repentance, but would ask, “Will you make restitution? Will you ask forgiveness? Will you forgive this person? Will you return the money you stole? Will you make right the wrong you did?” (Schubert 52).
Prayer for Healing
Beginning in December, 1931, John Sung exercised a truly stunning ministry of physical healing through prayer. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people were delivered from all sorts of illnesses, infirmities, and addictions after he prayed for them. Some of these purported healings, of course, “were of a dubious nature,” as those who were supposed to have been cured soon became ill or crippled again (Xi 147), but the vast majority of these miracles were witnessed by countless people, many of them originally skeptical of this aspect of John Song’s ministry. Opium addicts received instant delivery. Smokers kicked the habit “cold-turkey.” Those possessed by evil spirits were delivered. Blind people received their sight; the lame walked; disabled limbs were healed; leprosy cured instantly.
John Sung did not, however, give precedence to physical well-being. At each meeting, he first preached several sermons on the need to repent and to trust fully in Christ for salvation, insisting that full repentance of sins must precede lasting healing; the necessity of living according to God’s Word; and the imperative of total consecration to God. Nor did he emphasize spiritual gifts, but stressed faith in Christ and holiness of life. Though he received the gift of speaking with tongues, he never did so in public and he never promoted this gift. Thus, though he was “charismatic,” he was not Pentecostal in his theology.
John Sung taught that a new believer must demonstrate the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life by witnessing to others. Everywhere he preached, Sung organized preaching bands of three or four people to carry the gospel to their city and the surrounding countryside. These were essential to Sung’s success. They helped to prepare the way for his visits; expanded the number of converts; vitalized and mobilized the laity for evangelism; furnished most of the students for the Bible institutes and conferences; and kept the fires burning long after Sung had left the scene. In Singapore, they worked with local mainline churches as a separate organization under Leona Wu, who also founded the Chin Lien (Golden Necklace) Bible Seminary to train workers for the bands. Since a majority of those who volunteered for the bands were women, they also empowered women to serve as evangelists, preachers, and leaders in Singapore. The institutionalization of the preaching bands was a major part of Sung’s lasting impact in each city.
Not only did Sung seek to mobilize the laity, but he called for some to dedicate their lives to full-time Christian ministry. Dozens of prominent church leaders in China and Southeast Asia trace their spiritual beginnings to Sung’s powerful preaching and exhortations.
Ongoing Intercessory Prayer
Sung would invite those who had particular prayer requests to meet with him privately. Each person had to purchase a card, on which he wrote his name and other information, including the needs for prayer. Sung carried two suitcases of these cards around with him, and interceded each day by name for those who had requested his prayers. His ministry did not cease when he left a city where he had spoken, but continued through his fervent and faithful intercessions.
From the many letters and prayer-cards he received, Sung learned about the real problems and temptations people faced. Their stories supplied him with a rich supply of illustrations for his sermons. William Schubert wrote, “In Nanking I heard him weeping and praying in agony of soul, praying for these people in places where he had held meetings previously… . This is one secret of his success, and of the lasting results of his ministry.”
Many observers believe that the organization of the preaching bands and the incessant prayer for those who had heard him were keys to the lasting impact of Sung’s preaching.
Importance of Family Worship
From the beginning of his ministry, John Sung stressed the vital necessity of family worship. He urged people to go home and lead their families in Bible reading and prayer. He was convinced that the center of Christian life was the home and the family, not the church building or the pastor.
Relationships with foreign missionaries
Especially after his peremptory dismissal from the Bethel Band, he was understandably wary of domineering foreign missionaries. In his preaching and in his diaries, he criticized those who opposed his ministry because they were either envious or ignorant of his message; those who lived comfortably, even luxuriously, in the midst of poverty and suffering; those who looked down on their Chinese co-workers; and especially those with liberal theological views. His experience at Union Theological Seminary had thoroughly disillusioned Sung, even as it alerted him to the fundamental differences between liberalism and traditional biblical Christianity.
He frequently said that the control which foreigners held over finances and administration must give place to a Chinese church that was fully self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. More than once, he prophesied that God would soon remove all foreign missionaries from China. After that, a great revival would take place. History proved him right.
On the other hand, when he came across self-denying, humble missionaries, he commended them freely. Sometimes their willingness to live among the Chinese, eating and dressing like the locals and serving faithfully for many years, greatly moved him. Members and leaders of the China Inland Mission (CIM) often invited him to speak, for they shared his burden for evangelism and total consecration to God and the gospel. He gladly welcomed the cooperation of foreigners in his revival and evangelistic efforts, and rejoiced when some of them openly repented of their unbelief and sin. Evangelical missionaries (they were called “Fundamentalists” at the time) often commended him to others. One example was Dr. Martin Hopkins of the conservative North China Theological Seminary and Gordon Dunn, superintendent of the CIM in Anhui province. His friendship with the Rev. William E. Schubert was a great mutual blessing.
Not long before he died, Sung said to his old friend, “Oh, Mr. Schubert, God has been dealing with me. God tells me that I have been too critical of missionaries.” Schubert replied, “No, Dr. Sung, we needed it; I think it was of God that you found fault with us.” Sung replied, “No, you left your homes and families, and your own land, and made great sacrifices to preach the Gospel in China, yet I criticized you… . I ask you, on behalf of the missionaries, to forgive me” (Schubert 70).
John Song shared the perilous conditions of his fellow citizens. He did not shrink from traveling into combat zones, or preaching with Japanese planes flying overhead. In the midst of extreme poverty, he himself lived simply, even ascetically. He insisted upon traveling third class on the train, when he could have afforded better seating. When given money for travel expenses, he typically returned it, or donated most of the funds to someone in greater need. Wearing a plain Chinese-style scholar’s gown and carrying a tattered leather briefcase, he stayed wherever he found a welcome or a place to rest, no matter how uncomfortable.
The anal fistulas which he acquired while studying in America flared up whenever he taxed his body too much, which was often. This “thorn,” as he called it, caused him indescribable pain, sometimes forcing him to preach sitting down or even lying on a bed on the platform. He was aware that his own bodily frailty helped to curb his pride and remind him of his sins, especially his short temper.
Recent research has shown that Sung’s personal testimony contains manifest errors and important omissions, some of which must have been intentional. He did not, for example, graduate at the highest rank from Ohio Wesleyan University, nor did he complete his doctoral degree in only six months, though he did finish it in a still-remarkable two years. He recounts that God gave him the name “John” on the night of his conversion, but does not add that he also thought he had been called “Love,” “Riter,” and “Ring.” He rearranged the chronology of his conversion experience. He was not, as he writes, accosted by William Sloane Coffin and sent off to an unknown destination, but interviewed by a psychiatrist; Coffin never actually met Sung. He does not say that he sought re-admission to Union Seminary while still in the asylum.
Concerning his conversion one scholar writes, “His descriptions of what happened and what it meant do not correspond with the initial records. His story bears the marks of having evolved through his interaction with people and the historical forces that intersected his life” (Ireland, “John Sung’s Malleable Conversion Narrative,” 70). To the end of his life, Song repeatedly revised his testimony, contradicting himself at several key points. The evidence shows that he seems to have deliberately sought to write and speak what was not true, in order to bring people to trust in God.
He later admitted that he had exaggerated the numbers of those who had been “saved” at his meetings. Many of these were churchgoing people who had been revived. Indeed, he could be called a revivalist more than an evangelist, since the vast majoring of people who attended his meetings were churchgoers. On the other hand, since many of these were only nominal followers of Christ, thousands were truly converted through Sung’s preaching.
He seems to have taught that full repentance, faith, and consecration to Christ would bring bodily healing, and that recourse to doctors and medicine was not always a mark of faith. He not only neglected, but abused his body, relying on healing from God rather than taking the advice of others to slow down and seek medical treatment.
Sung could be very stern and brusque. He was not a people-pleaser, though he did seek to please God. He had little time for small talk or polite pleasantries. More than one church leader took offense when he declined invitations to tea or lunch during his preaching campaigns. They did not know that he was spending hours on his knees in prayer and Bible study, or in follow-up conversations with those who had repented or wanted prayer.
Unlike some itinerant evangelists and even some pastors, John Sung exercised immense care in dealing with money, despite frequent charges to the contrary. He did not want to fall into the temptation of wanting to be rich. All offerings or honoraria were turned over to a committee that disbursed the funds for necessary expenses and for his family.
“A man of one book.” Schubert and others have used this phrase to describe John Sung’s extraordinary love of the Scriptures and his absorption in the Word of God, to the neglect of almost all other books. The wide reading of his pre-conversion years gave way to a lifetime of immersion in the written Word of God. A person of unusual brilliance and creativity, he would study the Scriptures with a variety of methods, including noting broad trends and focusing on the meaning of each word. He could preach on any chapter of the Bible on the spur of the moment, and sometimes invited listeners to pick a chapter for him to expound extemporaneously.
Towards the end of his life, he exhorted others to spend more time in prayer, believing that he had relied too much on his own strength and not enough upon God.
Although his marriage had been arranged by his parents, and entered into only with reluctance and reservations, he sought to bring his wife to faith in Christ. Together they had three girls and one boy, who were all given biblical names: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Joshua. (Timothy Tow says that the Sungs had another son.) The youngest, Joshua, died in 1941.
At various points in his life, and especially towards the end, he realized that he had neglected his family, being gone from home eleven months of the year, including each time his wife gave birth. He felt sorry for this and tried to make up for lost time in the years that he was convalescing in Beijing. Heeding his own advice to have regular times of family worship, he read the Bible and explained it to his wife and children, often telling them allegorical stories to help them remember the main points. These were later published by his daughter, Song Tianying, as Hidden Manna, Servant’s Fables, and Sung’s Fables. Fondly recalling his early years in the United States, he also sang American folk songs to his family His favorite was, “My Old Kentucky Home” (Lim 246).
Schubert wrote that Mrs. Sung collected materials from his notebooks and had them published. The missionary also thought that the Sungs enjoyed a happy life together and that Mrs. Sung did not seem to be discontented with his long absences. After years of observing Sung and his family, Schubert wrote,” “His own family appreciated him. Mrs. Sung seemed to feel he was doing the right thing. I never felt that she was critical of him. His own daughter became a Christian young people’s leader, and the communists put her in prison because she had too much influence” (Schubert 71). Though he lived with his family only one month each year, “his sermons were full of illustrations from his family life” (Tow 88).
Aside from pride, John Sung, like his father, struggled with a terrible temper almost all his life. He would sometimes burst out in anger from the pulpit, or dismiss his interpreter suddenly because of incompetence. His denunciation of sin was often delivered in a very unloving manner, too. In his pursuit of holiness and righteousness, he could be severely critical of others.
In 1937, he admitted to others that he had been far too scathing in his criticisms. Perhaps because of his intense physical agony, he was becoming a gentler and more sympathetic person, not as critical of missionaries and others. “Sung was single-minded as he dealt with an area that he struggled with throughout his life” (Lim 207). As he recuperated from surgery in Beijing, he confessed a “sense of being chastened by God for his ill temper, stubbornness, criticism of missionaries, inability to work with others, neglect of his family, lacking love, ‘and many hidden sins’” (Lim 242).
Sung “understood, probably from his own failures, how easy it was for those endued with great spiritual powers to fall into temptation, and needed a greater degree of submissiveness. The genius of Sung was not in realizing it once and for all, but in knowing that it was something to constantly deal with throughout his life” (Lim 208).
John Song’s ministry shared some features with the work of other independent Protestant evangelical preachers in the first half of the 20th century, such as Wang Mingdao, Leland Wang (Wang Zai), Marcus Cheng (Chen Chonggui), Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng), Andrew Gih (Ji Zhiwen), and theologian Jia Yuming. They all remained free of formal ties with Western missionaries, though most would cooperate with like-minded foreigners on occasion; held to a similar evangelical theology (sometimes also called “fundamentalism”); and aimed primarily to bring people to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, build a church composed of believers, and advocate holiness of life, in expectation of the return of Christ.
Song’s distinctives included his confrontational style and ruthless denunciation of sins and of liberal theology, a willingness to confess and ask forgiveness publicly for losing his temper, an unusually deep knowledge of the Scriptures, the hours he spent in fervent prayer each day, effective prayer for healing; a unique combination of a simple faith with intellectual brilliance, remaining within his Methodist denomination and working with denominational churches, the requirement that every believer should be a witness to Christ, organization of evangelistic bands, stunning skill as a dramatic communicator in a variety of media, including song and the written word, and the huge numbers of people who were affected by him.
The Fullness of the Holy Spirit
Perhaps the greatest distinctive of his ministry, however, was the frequency of extraordinary manifestations of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. He prayed for and received the fullness of the Spirit in his preaching. Almost everywhere, many of his listeners felt both acute conviction of sin by the Spirit and intense joy as they believed in God’s forgiveness. Frequently, they would break out in cries of anguish or shouts of happiness, and entire congregations, overwhelmed by a sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit, would pray loudly at the same time, though Sung did not encourage this practice.
After his visit to southern China in 1937, a missionary wrote, “A new song has been put into the mouths of Chinese Christians and they are going around singing, literally, on all the roads, singing the News out of the Joy of the Lord which they have learned as never before” (Lim 206). “These joy-filled lives, touched by the Spirit and expressed through songs, were a mark of John Sung’s work” (Lim 206).
Eschewing open displays of spiritual gifts, Sung said that “the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person is much like an unseen army battalion; known only to that person and no one else” (Lim 208). “He himself had Pentecostal experiences, yet he took care to de-emphasize the sign gifts” (Lim 209). As he matured, he relied less on his extraordinary rhetorical powers and more on the work of the Spirit. In 1937 he said to a group in North China, “When I was with you in 1933, I exerted more in the flesh. Now you can see that my emphasis is more on the Spirit” (Tow 212).
We cannot account for the thousands who were converted, revived, healed, or moved to dedicate themselves entirely to God, apart from the power of God’s Spirit. The same goes for the remarkable fact that countless believers remained faithful to Christ and continued to spread the gospel even during the ravages of the war with Japan and the fierce persecution under the Communists.
His old friend Wang Mingdao conducted funeral service. In his eulogy Wang called John Sung “The Iron Preacher of China.”
Though not without faults, John Sung brought hope and the knowledge of God’s power and love to thousands who were distressed and destitute, and he left a legacy that endures. Today’s unregistered churches preserve several features of his ministry, including adherence to the Bible, fervent prayer, tireless evangelism, faith that God can heal people through prayer, and a longing for the return of Christ. The vitality of these churches cannot be explained without reference to the ministry of John Sung.
G. Wright Doyle
Bays, Daniel H. “The Growth of Independent Christianity in China, 1900–1937.” In Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, edited by Daniel H. Bays, 307–316. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
Ireland, Daryl. John Song: Modern Chinese Christianity and the Making of a New Man. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2020.
—. “John Sung’s Malleable Conversion Narrative.” Fides et Historia: Journal of the Conference on Faith and History, 45:1, Winter/spring, 2013, 48–75.
Lyle, Leslie. A Biography of John Sung. Singapore: Armour, 2004.
Reynolds, Arthur, trans. Strength for the Storm [sermons by John Sung and others]. Singapore: Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1988.
Schubert, William E. I Remember John Sung. Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College Press, 1976.
Sim, Joshua Dao Wei. “Chinese Evangelistic Bands in Nanyang: Leona Wu and the Implementation of the John Sung-Inspired Evangelistic Band Model in Pre-War Singapore.” Fides et Historia. Volume 50, No. 2. Summer/Fall 2018, 38–65.
Sung, Levi, compiler. The Journal Once Lost: Extracts from the Diary of John Sung. Translated by Thng Pheng Soon. Singapore: Genesis Books, 2008.
Sung, John. The Diaries of John Sung: An Autobiography. Translated by Stephen L. Sheng and Luke H. Sheng. Brighton, Michigan, 1995.
Tay, Irene , Hwa Yung, and the China Group. “Sung, John.” In A Dictionary of Asian Christianity, edited by Scott W. Sunquist. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.
Tow, Timothy. John Sung My Teacher. Singapore: Christian Life Publishers, 1985.
Lian Xi. Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 2010.