In 1877 a Pietist theology professor called for an end to the Chinese opium trade

Excerpt from Thomas Schirrmacher. Theodor Christlieb und seine Missionstheologie (Theodor Christlieb and His Theology of Mission). Telos: Wuppertal, 1985.

“The Seventh General Assembly of the Evangelical Alliance in Basel [1877] – upon the occasion of reporting on the present state of Evangelical/Protestant heathen mission – has expressed its complete sympathy for efforts to suppress the opium trade and supports the protest against its continuation, as has been raised with increasing emphasis during recent years by many English brothers from various denominations, even from representation of the entire body of the church in England. It declares, along with them, that the traditional trade is also an appalling injustice against China in its present legal form, and it is a deeply damaging irritant in the Christian and heathen worlds to the honor of the Christian reputation and in particular is a severe obstacle for Christian mission efforts. For the sake of general Christian interest, a change in English opium policy is considered to be urgently called for, and the chairman has been commissioned to bring this to the awareness of the state secretary for India.
Dr. Christlieb (Bonn).
Rev. W. Arthur (London).
Th. Necker (Geneva).”

The charge that Evangelical Christians do not fight against social misery in the world has repeatedly been brought forward. For many, the history of Pietistic mission efforts forgot the fight against social misery. That this charge is unjustified is shown by the history of missions itself. Surely the proclamation of the message of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ has been a priority. However, this does not automatically lead to closing one’s eyes before the problems of the world.

An example of this is the Bonn theology professor Theodor Christlieb (1833–1889), father of the inner-church Gnadauer Movement and the West German Evangelical Alliance. As a missiologist, he achieved significant steps for Protestant missions efforts. A comprehensive presentation of his life work is offered in the following: Thomas Schirrmacher, Theodor Christlieb und seine Missionstheologie (Theodor Christlieb and His Theology of Mission)Wuppertal 1985. There one can find documented references to all the statements in this article on pages 166-170.

His book The Indo-British Opium Trade and Its Effect was published 136 years ago (1878). Christlieb’s investigation of the opium trade is perhaps his most widely disseminated book and unleashed a global and wide ranging discussion in the press – as Gustav Warneck follows up on in his three critiques. The Chinese envoy even translated it into Chinese. A postcard to Eduard Schaer in Zurich displays something of the resonance it found:

“In thanking you most profoundly, honorable colleague, for your friendly letter and the presentation included, which I read through with interest, I would like to inform you that a French translation of my Opium Trade will be released in the coming days in Geneva and Paris, which you could perhaps make your French speaking friends aware of. A banker in Geneva took great interest in it. In America the booklet has already become rather well known through reprints (10,000 copies). Also otherwise I have received pleasantly approving appraisals, also from colleagues on the medical faculty, especially from England and Russia. Should a new run of copies become necessary, I will take the liberty of requesting dispatch of the document to the Spanish envoy, whom I do not yet know.
With distinguished respect D.Christlieb Bonn, 30/XII 78.”

In England, Christlieb had already not only addressed himself against the slave trade together with Elias Schrenk. Rather, he had also done so with respect to the opium trade. In his 1875 article in the major German journal on the science of mission (“AMZ”) he had already likewise directed himself against the opium trade. After composing the document in 1877, he continued to fight for his cause, for instance at the International Evangelical Alliance Conference in Basel in 1879 –the (World) Evangelical Alliance had been founded in London in 1846 – and at a synod. He even achieved an interpellation in British Parliament, which, however, unfortunately remained inconclusive. Despite this, he did not lose sight of this problem up to the year of his death. An advertisement by the publisher correctly said:

“This author is more or less the first who has dealt extensively with this question. The work is lucidly broken down into four parts. In a five-page introduction, Christlieb first of all mentions the occasion for the work. It is, as he immediately formulates in all vehemence, mass murder through Christian greed. This applies to slavery as well as to the spirits trade. It is clear for him that our time, drunk with progress, has reared a moral monster. And yet now Great Britain’s opium trade has prompted him to make the most vehement formulations. The same nation which due to heroic acts was able to clear itself from the curse of the slave trade in the first half of our century and through its best efforts finally also ended slavery in its colonies, and with these steps main causes of mass murder, is making efforts to eliminate this in West and East Africa where there are indeed significant numbers of victims. It is this same nation which in the second half of the century, in spite of the complaints and the heartfelt entreaties on the part of the Chinese government, indeed in spite of the cries of Christian conscience from within its midst, brings an annual sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Chinese in a growing progression through its opium in the face of its addiction to profit, or more precisely with its fear of a deficit in the Indian budget, and it is indeed a Christian, a Protestant power that uses its forced poison not only, like other mass murderers, to strangle the body but rather almost always at the same time to choke the souls, the entire spiritual and moral strength of its victims! It is a hybrid character which with one hand nobly spends itself on protecting the life and freedom of the Negro world and with the other violently vaccinates the twitching colossal body of China with death and servitude thanks to its poison, in Africa blessed by thousands and in East Asia cursed by millions – this is how England stands before us with its colonial and trade policies. The proud flag of Albion now carries a large stain.”

He fills the final pages of the introduction with references to other works and writings which demonstrate his expansive knowledge of the writings from many other countries.

In the first part, Christlieb gives a glance of the historical development of the British opium trade up to the present. He begins in the 16th century, but at that moment when in 1780 opium no longer was used as medicine he becomes more exhaustive. In 1799 the importation of opium was prohibited and smuggling blossomed.

“Infringement of the law and insubordination towards superiors was taught to the Chinese more systematically and more successfully than the Anglo-Indian government.”

In 1839 all the officers of the East India Company had to leave China. Two wars against China (1842-1843 and 1857-1860) opened the ports and enabled missionaries to conduct missions to China from port cities. The Treaty of Tien-tsin dating from 1860, which was still valid in 1877, thus when the work was composed, also allowed the importation of opium. Since India, the location of the production of opium, passed over from the East India Company to the British Crown in 1858, Christlieb saw England’s responsibility to be even greater.

  • In the second part, Christlieb investigates the effects of the opium trade on India, England, and China. The effects on England and India were:
  • In spite of the threat of starvation, valuable grain-growing country and farmland was continually being lost.
  • In spite of its prohibition, addiction to opium was also growing in India and even in England.
  • In the eyes of India, the honor of England had been lost.
  • The Indian government was becoming demoralized. It was promoting the opium business more than sourcing essential items for the population.
  • One-sixth of the Indian state budget had in the meantime become dependent on the opium trade.
  • The opium trade held back other countries from trade with England and China.

Overall, the opium trade benefitted only a few people in England and India. The effects on China were much more horrendous, namely a complete demoralization of the population. Most appalling were the consequences for an opium smoker himself and the innumerable crimes committed in order to get opium. Christlieb researched the number of individuals addicted to opium and opium victims, whereby he came up with a best estimate of 6 million smokers and a number of 600,000 deaths per year. Christlieb used medicinal grounds to refute the argument that opium addiction is like other addictions. The power of the will gets lost more strongly and more subconsciously, and generally, it continues until the individual sinks into an early grave. Additional consequences of the opium trade include the impoverishment of the country, renting out women, hatred of foreigners, innumerable hostilities, and generally unbelievably gruesome conditions, the existence of which hardly anyone dares to deny.

Without there being a desired separation between arguments relating to Christian missions and arguments which are political and economic in nature, what follows is a third part called “The Influence of Opium on Missions Efforts in China.” After statistical references that there were 208 Evangelical missionaries and 20,000 converts in China, Christlieb describes the link between colonial policy and missions, which many people first recognized at the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1899 or even not until after World War II.

“The opium trade, with all its complexity and agreements following in its train, had externally opened China to the gospel, but it also internally closed millions of Chinese hearts to preaching due to the shameful greed which emanated from it, due to the violence with which it had forced the country against its will and continued to do so, through the physical and moral devastation which was inflicted. In a word: Due to the shameful light which it casts upon its carriers, Christians, in comparison to the natural heathen conscience, have to appear to be morally lower and thus incapable of giving religious-moral instruction to others.”

He quotes the poster of a Chinese:

“You could have preached with more prospects for success 20 years ago .  . . even loaded down with sin you profess to be able to improve others.”

After additional examples, he formulates the main hindrance to missions. This hindrance to missions can only be understood by equating the missiological church and Christian people, which in any case is a step the Chinese had to perform. For Christlieb it appears that

“. . . the heathen conscience has been demonstrated to be more elevated than the one blinded by a thirst for gold which Christians have! How can the Chinese accept the gospel as the salvation of its people from those people whom they see working every day through their hideous business on the ruin of China? ? Oh, every action which serves to bring Christianity into disrepute is a betrayal towards the true civilization of humanity.”

Christlieb, however, also stands critically over against the Christian Western world:

“And how long will it take until the Chinese will have learned to make a difference between so-called Christian business people and governments and truly Christian preachers, between the gospel itself and the actual denial of its principles by so many Christians!”

In the final, shorter section, Christlieb returns to the political side and asks: Can there be relief from this evil? First of all, Christlieb exposes what are in part absurd explanations as to how the current situation cannot be eliminated or can even be seen in a positive light. Thus, for example, he attacks the argument that China is anyway overpopulated and refutes the claim that abolishing the opium trade would cost too much. He precisely calculates how much abolishing the opium trade would cost and which savings it would bring. He also shows that after a period of time the Indian government would be in better financial shape. Then, however, he determines the following independent of the calculations:

“The question has two sides, one moral and one fiscal. If one wrongly, i.e. in a non-Christian manner, places the latter side uppermost, then the difficulties appear to be endless, and one cannot get away from awkward misgivings . . .”

Finally he calls for the following:

“What is to be done? We answer as follows: In the first place, ask the conscience and not the wallet! Is the continuation of this trade right, i.e., justified before God and men or not, a trade which was only able to be legalized by force of arms while China asks to be delivered from it because the poverty of millions is poisoned by it and cries to heaven? And if you are not able to humanly answer with anything other than No!, then in God’s name follow that voice . . .”

According to Christlieb’s opinion, it is better to give up what is wrong and as Christians to demonstrate trust in God, who will align himself with abolishing what is wrong.


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