Commemorating 150 Years of Protestant Evangelism in Japan

Commemorating 150 Years of Protestant Evangelism in Japan
The worship service commemorating the day of the Kyodan’s founding, held
on June 24 at Fujimicho Church in Tokyo, also celebrated 150 years of
Protestant evangelism in Japan. This was the Kyodan’s 68th commemorative
worship service, which 320 persons from 133 churches attended, giving
thanks for the planting of the seeds of Protestant evangelism and for
the mercy of God, the guiding force of history. The sermon, entitled
“Make Disciples of All Nations,” was delivered by Yamakita Nobuhisa,
moderator of the Kyodan’s General Assembly. Joining in the Confession of
Faith and taking part in the communion service was truly meaningful. A
ceremony for presentation of awards followed the worship. This was
carried out to express gratitude for the work of pastors who have
continued active ministry in church evangelism for over 50 years. There
are 61 such pastors. To these ministers Moderator Yamakita presented
handwritten letters of appreciation and Bibles, in commemoration. The
longest time of continued ministry was 66 years.

Those who entered Japan as Protestant missionaries in 1859, when the
ports of Yokohama, Hakodate, and Nagasaki were simultaneously opened,
were John Liggins, C.M.Williams, G. Verbeck, J. C. Hepburn, Samuel R.
Brown, and D. R. Simmons. This was during the final years of the Edo
(Tokyo) Shogunate government, a time of upheaval in Japan. The
missionaries came to Japan to bring the Gospel, but public notices
outlawing Christianity were posted throughout the nation. Consequently,
the missionaries applied their energy to Bible translation and to
editing and publishing Japanese-English dictionaries. The public notices
forbidding Christianity were removed in 1873. This enabled the
missionaries to begin full-scale evangelism. As Japan opened its ports,
the number of young people wanting to engage in Western studies steadily
increased. Reportedly, nine of the young people who gathered around J.
H. Ballagh in 1872 were baptized, thus laying the foundation for the
first Protestant church in Japan. The missionaries, while proclaiming
Christianity, also enthusiastically taught Western studies, social work,
education, and medical treatment. They advanced these retarded areas of
Japanese culture and built the foundation for a new Japan.

The theme of this year’s events is the Protestant evangelism that began
150 years ago in 1859; but on April 30, 1846, (13 years earlier),
Bernard John Bettelheim, sent from England as a missionary by the
Anglican Church, arrived in Okinawa. Bettelheim landed with his family
in the Ryukyus (now Okinawa) and for eight years, in spite of
persecution, diligently devoted himself to evangelism, medical care, and
translation of the Bible into the Ryukyu language. He is believed to
have left Okinawa, gaining passage on a ship in Perry’s fleet, which was
pressing Japan to open its ports. So it might be said that Bettelheim is
the one who first engaged in Protestant evangelism in Japan. Thus, when
we commemorate 150 years of evangelization in Japan, dating it from
1859, we must remember Bettelheim’s lasting pioneer labor. Also to be
noted, as we celebrate these 150 years, is their relationship to earlier
celebrations commemorating 50 years and 100 years of evangelism,
counting from the same year. However, the earliest introduction of
Christianity into Japan goes even farther back to 1549, when Francisco
Xavier came to Japan as a missionary of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus,
Christianity has been propagated in Japan for 460 years.

As the year 2009 approached, several of the Protestant churches in Japan
decided to sponsor jointly a mass meeting commemorating 150 years of
Protestant mission in Japan. One event planned early was the
commemoration dinner held on July 7, when 915 persons gathered and
rejoiced while eating together. Representatives from the U.S. Episcopal
Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Reformed Church in America
presented greetings. The archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in
Tokyo also brought greetings.

A commemorative assembly was held on the following days, July 8 and 9,
at the Pacifico Yokohama National Hall. Under the theme “One in Christ
(as the Lord’s witnesses),” the various Japanese Protestant
denominations came together as one to give thanks and celebrate the past
150 years. The attendance at the opening worship service on July 8 was
4,500; at the memorial ceremony on July 9: 3,700; and at the “sending
out for witness” worship service: 4,000.

This fall, the Kyodan will hold a lay persons’ mass meeting on Nov. 22
and on Nov. 23, a ceremony commemorating these 150 years of evangelism.
We offer heartfelt thanks to God who has guided our history leading to
these 150-year commemorative celebrations. (Tr. RB)

–Suzuki Nobuharu, secretary
Kyodan General Assembly