One of the key early church leaders in Zhejiang Province was Zia Ying Tong, who was born into a poor family at Ningbo in 1825. His father died when he was three years old, and his brother also passed away a few years later. Zia’s mother carried on, lovingly finding a way to provide for her children.
By the time Zia was a teenager he had followed his ancestors into idolatry, and regularly visited temples to pay homage. One day he heard that a missionary, William Martin, had opened the doors of the chapel and was welcoming people to come and ask him questions about Christianity. Zia was curious, and reckoned that he had more than a hundred questions that he wanted to pose to the foreigner. Martin patiently answered all of Zia’s questions and by the end of their time together the young man was convinced that Christianity was the true religion. In time he surrendered his life to Jesus and was baptized in1855.
For a year Zia was employed as a teacher at Mary Ann Aldersey’s school for girls, and although he did a good job, his heart yearned to roam the countryside sharing the gospel with those who had never heard it. He moved with his young wife to a region 40 miles northwest of Ningbo, where:
He labored most faithfully and effectively for about three years, preaching in tea-shops, rest-houses, or wherever he could get a hearing. At night a few interested ones gathered in his home, and they often talked about the gospel until far into the night. Not a single village in the whole region was omitted in this faithful evangel.
Zia expanded his ministry of evangelism throughout the Zhejiang countryside, and churches grew in size and grace wherever he went. When the Taiping rebels took control of Ningbo in 1861, Zia continued preaching in his chapel until they captured him and his brother and marched them off to their camp.
During the time they were in the rebel camp, the brothers were subjected to cruelty and hardships, but what pained Y.T. Zia the most was the open idolatry and debauchery of the rebels. He was convinced that to participate in their worship would be an act of idolatry, so he decided to have nothing to do with it. His decision was not a light one, for every day the rebels would give a roll call, and if any of their captives refused to bow down to the idols they would be summarily executed on the spot. Zia realized his stand was likely to cost him his life.
For the next two days, Zia was able to slip away before the roll call, and was not required to worship the spirits. On the third evening he was in deep agony of soul and could not sleep, as he realized it was only a matter of time before the rebels called his name or discovered he had eluded them. After he had struggled in prayer for many hours, the peace of the Holy Spirit flooded Zia’s heart, and he knew that whether he lived or died, he would not compromise.
At ten o’clock that night, as he walked around the perimeter of the camp, Y.T. Zia heard his name being called. He hurried toward the sound and:
…was met by two missionaries who had sought for him daily since his capture, and were making one last effort before giving up the search. They procured the release of Zia and his brother and restored them to their waiting friends… A band of Christians had not ceased praying for him day and night, and it was a direct answer to prayer … From this point forward his life was even more fully consecrated than before.
In 1864 Zia became the first ordained Presbyterian minister in China. His first pastorate was a congregation of 70 members at Sanbo on the northwest of Ningbo. For the next 13 years he faithfully fed the flock, without neglecting his call to win unbelievers to Christ. He often walked for days over mountains and through valleys, searching for lost sheep to bring into God’s fold, and hundreds of sinners were saved. He was often accompanied on those journeys by his sons, who gained a first-hand education in how to serve God.
Everywhere he went Zia was respected as a man of impeccable integrity. He constantly amazed shopkeepers by returning small amounts of cash they had accidentally overpaid to him, and an incident at his mother’s funeral illustrates the hatred he had for idolatry. God had rescued Zia from that empty life, and it pained him to think anyone might associate him with idolatry again. At the funeral service:
When an ode to the departed spirit was read which referred to the members of the family as kneeling, he said in a loud, clear, voice, “Zia Ying Tong and his sons are not kneeling!” When his brother and friends expostulated with him for making unnecessary disturbance, since all could see he was not kneeling, he replied, “But there may have been a blind man in the audience.”
Later in life, regular asthma attacks slowed Zia down, and he was compelled to reduce his travels. He remained at Ningbo, teaching the believers and attending to church matters.
On May 12, 1895, the 70-year-old beloved pastor finished his earthly service with the words, “Thank God, thank God” on his lips.
One of the deepest desires of Y.T. Zia’s life was to see his three sons grow up to serve the Lord with all their hearts. God granted him this desire, and the gospel was handed down to the next generation. His first son became an elder in the church and assisted with evangelistic work. The second was a pastor, and his youngest son graduated from Bible school and became a preacher even while his father was still living.
Taken, with permission, from Paul Hattaway, Zhejiang: The Jerusalem of China. Volume Three in The China Chronicles. London: SPCK, 2019, 44-47.