Watson McMillan Hayes, Ding Limei, and the Battle for Christian Orthodoxy

Watson McMillan Hayes, Ding Limei, and the Battle for Christian Orthodoxy

            In late September 1919, eighteen students walked out of their classes at the Union theological faculty of Shandong Christian (Qilu) University. Based in Jinan, capital of Shandong, China, the university was a joint project of the American PCUSA and British Baptists.

            But the differences between the two denominations escalated to a point that the university’s president, J. Percy Bruce, was asked to resign. The related discussions led to the resignation of two deans, L. J. Davies and Watson McMillan Hayes. Of these, Hayes, dean of the faculty of theology, had long been respected as a champion of historical Christianity against the spreading liberalism which had begun to infiltrate the college. His students couldn't take his departure lying down.

Watson McMillan Hayes

            Born in 1857 in Mercer County, western Pennsylvania, Hayes was raised by his mother after his father’s death in 1865, during the American Civil War. Watson Hayes achieved his higher education first at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and then at Western Seminary in Pittsburgh. At Western, he studied for three years under Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, who was then Professor of New Testament Exegesis and Literature. Warfield left a great impression on Hayes and shaped his commitment to biblical inerrancy and to the historical Protestant confessions.

            Hayes moved to China in 1882 under appointment by the (American) Northern Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. As an apprentice missionary, he was assigned to the tutelage of Calvin Mateer, who had just founded Tengchow College as the first modern institution of higher education in China. Mateer, who had also presided over a widely-circulated Chinese translation of the Bible, helped Hayes to become proficient in the Chinese language and culture.

            Hayes taught at Tengchow College until 1901, when Yuan Shikai, governor of Shandong, invited him to serve as first president of Shandong Imperial University (forerunner of Shandong Christian University). With Yuan’s backing, Hayes published a successful newspaper, the Shantung Times, and petitioned the Qing court to grant a holiday on Sundays to government schools and colleges.

            He became dean of the Theological College of Shandong Christian University in 1916.

Ding Limei

            The students’ protest against Hayes’s removal was not a short-lived demonstration. It was a powerful statement and the seed of a whole new establishment. The eighteen protesting students followed Hayes to Weixian, about 150 miles west of Jinan, where they convinced him to continue to tutor them. Eventually, they received the backing of the Chinese Presbyterian churches, who withdrew their support from Shandong University and backed the foundation of a new seminary named North China Theological Seminary (NCTS), calling Hayes as its president.

            One of the main voices in the protest was Ding Limei, a powerful evangelist who had studied under Hayes at Tengchow College. Ordained for ministry in 1898, Ding preached throughout the Shandong region.

            By 1919, Ding had earned the respect of Chinese Christians through years of faithfulness to Christ and his church. In 1900, during the Boxer Uprising, Ding he had spent forty days in prison, beaten with almost 200 blows until his skin was torn open. He had gained his freedom through the intervention of Yuan Shikai upon Mateer’s intercession, and had immediately resumed his work of evangelism. By the time of the student rebellion, he had already taken the gospel to eighteen provinces of China and had influenced hundreds of young people to devote their lives to the Christian ministry.

            Ding’s talents and commitment were greatly appreciated. In 1920, he was chosen as the first traveling secretary for the YMCA – an organization which, at that time, was heavily involved in evangelism. He was also one of the founders of the China Inland Evangelistic Society. But he soon came to realize that, to produce long-lasting fruit, evangelism must be paired with a serious commitment to theological education. Moved by this conviction, he became a teacher at NCTS in Tengxian (where the seminary had moved in 1922), and later at a Bible College in Tianjin.

            Ding’s service was ended abruptly by liver cancer. Forced to stay home, he devoted his time to prayer and writing. When he died in 1936, at the age of 65, three notebooks were found among his possessions, filled with a long prayer list of about five thousand people.

The North China Theological Seminary

            One of the goals of the new seminary was to prepare the students to face the new, liberal doctrines taught around China which, Hayes said, could “only be described, even from a mildly conservative standpoint, as ‘erroneous.’”[1] Similarly to what was happening in much of North America and Europe, the stories of the Old Testament, as well as the virgin birth, resurrection, and deity of Christ were under attack.

            Hayes described these problems during a six-month furlough in 1930. Speaking to his supporters at Swarthmore Church, Philadelphia, he exposed “Christ-belittling, Gospel-doubting men, who imagine their ideas are as good, if not superior to those of St. Paul.”[2]

            But liberalism was not the only theological corruption China had absorbed from western nations. There was also a wave of radical Pentecostalism, particularly in the “Spiritual Grace Movement” of the 1930’s. Hayes criticized what he called the “imaginary exegesis” of the movement’s followers, who placed the intuitions of the Spirit over the study of God’s written Word. “Nothing but a thorough knowledge of the profound truths of Christ and the Apostles will prevent men from advancing their own crude and erroneous ideas,”[3] he said.

            NCTS’s initial faculty included Hayes, Yi Hsing-lin, and Albert Dodd. More teachers were added in the course of time, although the number of teachers continued to be small for the growing college. Since the school emphasized the training of local leaders, the classes were held in Mandarin, while English was offered as an elective.

            Besides teaching theology and other academic disciplines, NCTS gave the students six months between school years for evangelistic work, so that “on graduation day, they will not be inexperienced novices but men qualified by educational culture and practical experience to build up the church.”[4] Hayes stressed that “the main business of the missionary is not to teach modern methods of farming, political science, philosophy, or modern languages…but to lead men to know God and Jesus Christ.”[5]

Obstacles and Persecution

            Besides the spread of liberalism and radical Pentecostalism, NCTS faced two major obstacles in the early 1930’s. The first was the Great Depression, which forced some American supporters to end or at least curb their donations. The second problem was the influence of some writings by PCUSA missionary Pearl Buck. Buck had achieved international literary acclaim for her novel The Good Earth. For this reason, her opinions on the usefulness of missions, which reflected her belief that all religions lead to the same God, had an undue impact on many Christians.

            It was against Buck’s propositions that the American professor J. Gresham Machen wrote a response called “The Responsibility of the Church in Our New Age.” The church should preach the gospel, he said, not “as one way of salvation, but as the only way.”[6] Machen became the co-founder of a new missionary organization, the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, which Dodd promptly joined.

            At the same time, the political situation in China was becoming critical as the country was taken over first by the Red Army and later by the Japanese. And yet, those were the most productive years at NCTS, when students were more than ever eager to learn and committed to the faith. Whether consciously or not, many of them were being prepared for martyrdom.

            Watson Hayes, his wife Margaret, and their 43-year-old son John suffered too, as they were led out of their home in March 1943 by Japanese troops and taken to Weixian. There, the Japanese had turned the former American Presbyterian Mission into a concentration camp. Eric Liddell, the famous Olympic runner who became a missionary to China, was imprisoned and died in the same place.

            Watson Hayes, who had kept his vigor well into his old age, died at Weixian on 2 April 1944. Margaret and John were freed in 1945, at the end of the war. They moved back to America, where Margaret died shortly after. In the States, John reunited with his wife Barbara and their two children, who had been sent to the Philippines in 1941 and repatriated in 1944.          John and his family returned to China in 1948 as missionaries in the southwestern provice of Guizhou. When the communists took power again, Barbara moved to Hong Kong and John stayed in China until he was arrested and imprisoned as a spy. He was expelled in 1952 and returned to the States, only to move to Indonesia three years later. He died there in 1957 in a car accident. Barbara returned to the States where she continued to promote the work of missions.


[1] Ogbu Kalu, Alaine Low, Interpreting Contemporary Christianity: Global Processes and Local Identities, Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans, 2008, 189

[2] A. Donald MacLeod, “Watson Hayes and the North China Theological Seminary,” in Bruce P. Baugus, China’s Reforming Churches, Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014, 67

[3] Yao, Kevin Xiyi, The Fundamentalist Movement Among Protestant Missionaries in China, 1920-1937, Dallas: University Press of America, Inc., 2003, 171, quoted in Martha Stockment, “Watson Hayes,” https://bdcconline.net/en/stories/watson-hayes.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “The Responsibility of the Church in Our New Age”


Simonetta Carr