by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Congregational Church traces its origins to 16th century England and efforts by Puritans to reform the Church of England through the teachings of the French Protestant theological Jean Chauvin, better known as John Calvin. When the Pilgrims came to America in 1620 and established the Massachusetts Colony, they were religious exiles seeking to be free of Anglican control.
Not surprisingly, the Temple family, which migrated from England and settled in Massachusetts just a little more than fifteen years later, were Congregationalists and it is also noteworthy that Pliny Fisk Temple, who came to Los Angeles in summer 1841 to meet his much older half-brother Jonathan and who stayed permanently, was named for a very prominent missionary named Pliny Fisk (1792-1825), whose work was mainly in the Near East with the main goal to convert the Jews of Palestine to Christianity as paving the way for the return of Christ and his millenial reign on earth.
In Los Angeles, which was, of course, founded in 1781 under Spain and then was part of México from the early 1820s, Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion until increasing immigration from Americans and others slowly brought more Protestants to the Angel City. As noted in a previous post on this blog, the First Congregational Church was completed on the west side of New High Street in late June 1868.
After fifteen years, the church moved to a new location at Hill and Third streets, but, in 1888, another site was found at Hill and Sixth. The same year, the Los Angeles Congregational Chinese Mission was established, being one of a few formed by Protestants, including Baptists and Presbyterians, in attempts to Christianize the Chinese population. The Congregational mission was under the general supervision of the Rev. William C. Pond (1830-1925), who administered the various institutions from San Francisco.
In early December 1889, the Los Angeles County Sabbath School Association held a meeting and it was reported that there were twenty students at the Congregational Chinese Mission. A young man named Chan Tu Sing spoke and observed that “China, my native land, the dear ‘Middle Kingdom,’ has learned that though not the middle of the world, it is the center of the devil’s empire.” Declaring that Catholics were as misguided as Buddhists, Chan claimed that, through Protestantism’s conquest of China, “it means the death of the devil and all his works.”
For the third anniversary of the Mission, the Los Angeles Express of 9 March 1891 reported
The interest which Los Angeles people take in the Chinese mission work was demonstrated last evening by the large audience which assembled in the First Congregational church on the occasion of the celebration of the third anniversary of the Chinese mission. Every one of the thousand chairs in the great auditorium was occupied.
Pond, as usual, came down from the Bay Area to preside over the services, which included a recitation by Lem Gan; an address by Dear On on aspects of his life, after which he sang a song; Len Leung delivered a Scripture recitation; Loo Yim and Jue King gave short addresses; and Loo Ying discoursed on the ways Christians and “heathens” prayed for rain. A Chinese man who adopted the name of James Chandler also sang, as did the mission students, while Jee Gam of Oakland, who was the first Chinese Congregationalist minister in America, spoke on “China for Christ.
The Express observed that “Mr. Gam is a more finished speaker than many Americans who mount the platform, and gave a most interesting sketch of village life in China, the work of the missions there” and more. It concluded “the vast congregation enjoyed the service from beginning to end and responded liberally to the call for a collection to support the mission work in Los Angeles.”
The following year, the paper reported on the fourth anniversary service, noting that a “Mrs. E. Price” gave an address emphasizing “the harmony in the school, and the excellent results attained.” It was also noted that “a new mission room has been opened at the junction of the plaza and Los Angeles street,” this being where the Calle de los Negros, the first Chinese section of the city, was once located and where the horrific massacre of nineteen Chinese males by a mob of Latinos and Anglos took place in October 1871. The Calle, however, was removed for the northern extension of Los Angeles Street and Chinatown expanded east across Alameda Street, where Union Station is today.
The account further recorded that attendance was at a peak of 42 and ten workers were needed to carry on the expanding work of the mission. Singing, one piece was performed in Chinese, by duos, trios, quartets and the chorus “were rewarded with the warm approbation” of those in attendance. Lem Gan and four others (Yip Bow, Loo Ying, Chin Toy, and Jue See) gave addresses, while Rev. Pond “made very encouraging remarks.” He told the assemblage that there were 850 converts at the missions under his supervision and he “made an earnest appeal” for contributions with the hope of raising a thousand dollars that month.
At the beginning of 1893, the Los Angeles Times ran a lengthy feature on the establishment, “by a society of women,” of “a home of refuge, rescue and instruction for Chinese women and girls of this city” and it was reported that
Mention was made of it in the press, however, in connection with the recent trial of a poor hunted Chinese girl, who had been sold and resold in this land of human liberty and freedom, and who dared to escape from her unspeakably debasing and cruel life, and from her demon master.
The inception of the enterprise was through “a union missionary meeting” that gathered at the First Methodist Episcopal Church a year prior, with representatives present from ten or more religious denominations in the Angel City. After another gathering, monthly meetings began to be held at the First Congregational Church, starting with a formal organization in March 1892, “and the society went to work with a will, and hopes to remain at work till the last vestige of slavery is wiped from this fair State, if not from the whole land.”
The piece noted that the need for a home in Los Angeles was because, while there was one in San Francisco, many Chinese women feared what would happen if they undertook the long journey and were intercepted by the men who were said to hold them in bondage. Additionally, there were enough Chinatown in southern California (missions, for example, were found in Riverside, San Diego, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Pomona and Pasadena, among others) to, it was averred, support such an endeavor.
The home was established, notably, on Temple Street, just about where U.S. 101 and the 110 Freeway meet, and the article concluded by noting that the society hoped that its work would be useful “in giving freedom and happiness to their sex, looking forward and paving the way to the utter extinction of the most diabolical system of slavery that demons incarnate—or in spirit—could invent.” Readers were encouraged to visit the society’s office on Hill Street south of the 7th Street
for reading matter that will awaken the most listless conscience concerning the condition of human beings at our very thresholds; being who have both a moral and legal right to look to us for succor, redress and freedom.
In mid-July 1897, thousands of members of Christian Endeavor, a youth organization formed in 1881, came to a conference in Los Angeles, which increasingly became a popular destination for national meetings and conventions. The Express of the 16th noted that, while some visitors might know of San Francisco’s much larger Chinatown, Los Angeles had one that, the paper claimed, included some 5,000 residents, though that was a significant exaggeration as other sources indicate that the number was probably between 2 and 3,000.
Still, the paper encouraged visitors to take in “the Chinese quarter” as it did not possess the unstated “objectionable features” of the Chinatown in San Francisco. Moreover, “professional guides may be secured by those who wish them”—a post on this blog features a pamphlet from one of these guides. Beyond the idea that the Plaza would be an attraction to “those who delight in things that bear the signs of hoary age,” attendees “ought to be especially interested in Chinese mission work,” including, of the half-dozen listed, the Congregational, which was located on the old Commercial Street just west of Main and had “Mrs. O.V. Rice” as its superintendent.
In July 1898, an “all-day union meeting of the various Chinese Mission Schools” was held at the Disciples of Christ institution, located in the Garnier Block, completed in 1890, on Los Angeles Street, part of which survives today and in which is the Chinese-American Museum of Los Angeles. A pair of two-hour services were followed by an evening street meeting with a sermon by Co Chow and another night-time service with Chin Lok Sang sermonizing. It was reported that one of the topics of discussion was “How can we induce a larger attendance at our mission schools, and how can we more effectively retain those who come?”
As the 19th century drew to a close, the 1900 anniversary service for the Congregational mission, reported the Times of 8 March, forsook the usual prayer meeting for a different program. The article noted that the mission operated for a third of the year and had 30 members, of which about two-thirds attended, along with “a number of educated Chinese from Los Angeles.” Chinese missionary Lee Hane spoke, as did Rev. Pond, while reports about operations for the mission and Sunday school were presented and music in Chinese and English were done solo and in trios and quartets. Finally, it was noted that “contributions were received sufficient to carry on the mission work among the Chinese for the ensuing year.”
The paper reported in July on a notable incident involving merchant Louie Keong, who was the senior partner in the Tai Sang Company, situated on Los Angeles Street where Father Serra Park is now across from the Plaza. It was said that Keong “embraced the Christian faith some time ago and became an active member of the Congregational Chinese mission,” but when he went to Canton (now Guangzhou), China to get married and then return with his wife to the Angel City, he was held up at San Francisco because the legitimacy of his occupation in his travel papers was questioned. First Congregational minister Warren Day and others were lobbying to get Keong released so he could return home.
This was the era of the Boxer Rebellion in China, in which an effort was made to drive foreigners out of the nation which was subjected to all manner of humiliations by European nations for decades to that point. In March 1901, Fong Sec, a student at Pomona College, spoke at the Mission on the rebellion and the conflict between those Chinese who wanted to adapt to modern conditions in the face of foreign aggression and those who sought to preserve traditional ways.
Fong also spoke out against the partition of his homeland, noting that this was as much a cause of the rebellion as any other, and he asked his audience how Americans would feel if faced with such a possibility. Noting that trying to divide a nation of 400 million persons was an impossibility, he added that no European nations wanted Chinese migrants, “nor does Uncle Sam want the Chinese,” so, he asked, “why not leave to him his own country, which he has inhabited for 4,000 years?” The wrongs of the Boxers in their uprising were countered by those of the foreigners in their looting, plundering and violence against the Chinese.
He observed that “China must, instead, become a market open to progress, science, art and industry” because “the opening of the largest market the world has ever known will be the certain means whereby all may harvest wealth in the future.” Fong concluded that “the superiority of Christian civilization, in loftiness of moral purpose and an exalted spirit of unselfishness” meant directing China toward “an era of reform and progress that will be a blessing for the whole world, and cause future generations of Chinese to remember with gratitude their benefactors who . . . gave them a new existence inspired with the energy and life of the twentieth century.” These are interesting sentiments to ponder over 120 years later and for more on Sec, here is a great article on him.
In late September 1905, the Rev. Judson Smith, corresponding secretary of the Congregational Church’s American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (established in 1910) from 1864 until his death in June 1906, spoke on the organization’s work at the First Congregational Church. Len Gam, mentioned above, “in broken English, gave words of greeting . . . from the mission, and expressed the idea that China would one day be a Christian nation.” The Los Angeles Herald of the 25th added that “the little man lost his diffidence and, mastering the English language with difficulty, spoke with a fervor which was a credit to his nationality.”
In reply, Smith looked forward to the day that “finally the kingdom of Christ shall be universal,” but noted that during the Boxer Rebellion “the missions were literally wiped out” with the loss of life and a half million dollars of property. The Church and Board returned to their work and, he added, in northern China there were more churches and 500 more congregants than before the revolt.
As to the 18th anniversary service, the Herald provided a detailed summary, noting that thirty Chinese children took part, while Pond “spoke very encouragingly of the work all along the coast, with special high praise of the achievements of Los Angeles.” Superintendent Mrs. E.M. Findlay reported that $1,600 was raised during the previous year, including funding for “a native worker in China” who was based in Hong Kong. Given particular kudos was Margaret Chung, whose reading of a poem called “Missionary Giving” was considered to be “specially impressive.” Also highlighted was that
The Chinese children were very enthusiastic and performed their parts admirably; a portion of them were in native costume.
The order of service was reproduced as printed on the program (note that Lem Gan offered remarks) featured here and the piece concluded that meetings and Sunday school exercises were held in the Commercial Street quarters. It ended with the observation that “the good will of the Chinese missions of the different denominations of Los Angeles is expressed by the monthly union meetings.”
Ragged as it is, the Homestead’s collection is fortunate to have his early, rare artifact pertaining to the Los Angeles Congregational Chinese Mission and its connections to the Angel City’s Chinese community as well as to its religious environment in the early years of the 20th century.