Sun was born in Changzhou in 1914. In 1934, he entered the Nanjing Jinling Theological Seminary, but did not formally graduate until ten years later, due to the disruption of the war. He was ordained in Sichuan in 1941, working at the church on Shaanxi Road in Chengdu. Arriving in Shanghai in 1945, he became involved in the so-called “student church” at the Community Church, together with future leaders of the TSPM (Three Self Patriotic Movement), such as Ding Guangxun, Luo Guanzong and Yin Xiang.
Sun first arrived to work at MMC in 1947, as a young assistant pastor, taking over much of the youth work previously run by American missionary Mary Ellen Hawk. He was active in the Wesleyan Youth Fellowship, founded by another American, Miss Lucy Jim Webb. After his first wife, Yuan Hongxiu (a doctor) passed away in childbirth, Sun married a parishioner from MMC that he met through the Fellowship, Ye Xuqin (1920-1997). The ceremony took place at MMC on June 24, 1950, with Sid and Olive Anderson present, just before they left for Hong Kong.
After the departure of all of the American missionaries, Xie Songsan was left in charge of the church, with Sun Yanli as his assistant. Sun was not one of the original forty signatories to the “Christian Manifesto” but his name was listed among the first 1527 published in the People’s Daily on September 23, 1950. During the 1950s, he gradually made his way up the ladder, gaining positions such as assistant secretary of the Shanghai TSPM. By 1958 Xie Songsan had fallen out of favour and Sun was placed in charge of the United Worship Committee for the Huangpu District. He was responsible for drawing up the weekly schedule of sermons for the four churches left open in the district, with Yu Mingjian from the Anglican Church acting as his deputy. In 1959, the Sun family moved to live inside the actual building at Moore Memorial Church, remaining there until the closure of the church in 1966.
On August 23, 1966, a large group of Red Guards arrived at MMC. Sun and his family were confined within the building for just under three weeks, suffering constant interrogation, as well as beatings with whips and belts. Once they were allowed to leave the church, Sun and his family moved to a small apartment near Xinzha Road. The Red Guards shaved his head and made him report to “work” every day at the church, sweeping and cleaning. Later, he was given a menial job at a cardboard carton factory, alongside other ministers and people from Catholic and Buddhist backgrounds.
When MMC was the first church in Shanghai to be re-opened, on September 2, 1979, Sun presided over the first service, attended by an estimated two thousand people. At the conclusion of the service, he announced to the emotionally charged congregation that, because the attendance was so good, another service would be held the following week and a second church would also be re-opened soon in the city. It was the beginning of the re-birth of the official church in China.
As he did in the 1950s, Sun once again accumulated a number of titles. He was made Chairman of the Huangpu District First Protestant Congress in July 1981 and again for its second meeting in December 1986. He was made President of the East China Theological Seminary when it re-opened on September 11, 1985 and was chosen to lead the closing service at the Fourth National Christian Conference in Beijing in August 1986. On June 26, 1988, in Moore Memorial Church, Sun Yanli and Shen Yifan (from the nearby Community Church) were both consecrated as bishops, the only two to be chosen since the early 1950s.
Sun took part in a number of delegations, visiting countries such as Australia, the United States and Malta. During the student protest movement of 1989, Sun, together with Cao Shengjie and other church leaders in Shanghai, sent a letter to the Chairman of the National people’s Congress, Wan Li, urging restraint, but generally he avoided speaking out, choosing to work with the communist authorities, rather than against them.
Sun Yanli’s greatest contribution to church life in China was in the musical area. Together with Shi Qigui (another pastor at MMC), he was a key member of the committee that produced a new hymnal in the early 1980s. As far back as 1949, he wrote a Chinese translation for the German hymn “Gelobt sei Gott” by Melchior Vulpius. Some of his hymns reflect Chinese culture and its sense of community. For example, in 1982, he wrote the words and melody to Jinglao Zunzhangge (“Honour the Elderly”). Others follow more standard religious themes, such as Song Zhu Shengyinge (“Thank you Lord, for Voice to Praise”) and Shenghuo Meihaoge (“Happy is our Life”), both of which he wrote the words for in 1982. Perhaps his most famous work is the unashamedly patriotic hymn he wrote with Shi Qigui in 1981/82, entitled Qiu Zhu Fuyou Zhonghuage (“May God bless China”):
God is pleased with Three-self spirit, Showing we love our homeland and our faith. Beauteous China! Glorious China! How her children love her so. We petition to our Saviour, asking Him to bless China.
One of his sons, Sun Jiandong, lives in Yunnan Province and is a quite well known artist. Two large paintings of his hang in the foyer of MMC, to commemorate his father’s work. Another son, Sun Jiancheng (born 1957), still lives in Shanghai with his family. Sun Yanli passed away quietly on April 4, 1995.
- Oral interviews with Sun Jiancheng in Shanghai (son of Sun Yanli), 2006.
- Huangpu District China Christian Council, Muentang gaikuang[The general situation at MMC], unpublished manuscript, Shanghai, 1994.
- China Christian Council, Zanmeishi [The New Hymnal], Shanghai: China Christian Council, 1999.
- Coulson, Gail, The Enduring Church, New York: Friendship Press, 1996.
- Keating, John Craig William, A Protestant Church in Communist China, Bethlehem PA: Lehigh University Press, 2012.