It was 500 years ago, on October 31 in the year 1517, that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, marking the start of what is known as The Reformation and as Protestantism
Preceded by many other reformers who attacked the corruption within the Roman Catholic Church, Luther’s publication protested the theological perversions of redemption and grace. Only Scripture was to be authoritative and only faith required for justification.
It took almost four centuries, however, before Protestant missionaries came to Vietnam. Alexander de Rhodes, the famous 17th century Catholic missionary who Romanized the Vietnamese script, wrote of meeting Protestant European traders. Neither the British or the Dutch “put themselves to any trouble to convert the pagans, so little love do they have for making Jesus Christ known,” de Rhodes stated. Even in the 1800s, the “Great Century” of Protestant mission, the nations of Indochina were forgotten.
Just before the turn of the 20th century, the first Protestant missionaries arrived with the British and Foreign Bible Society. A French citizen with the agency named Bonnet had translated Scripture portions into Vietnamese by 1890. Yet no churches had been planted. Meanwhile, missionaries from the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) based in China traveled in and out of Vietnam. It was Bonnet who opened the doors and invited the C&MA missionaries to come to Danang city (then called Tourane) in 1911.
Under the leadership of R. A. Jaffray, the C&MA set out to establish churches nationwide which were self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. In 1913 the first chapel was built in Danang. In 1916, the Canadian couple William and Grace Cadman moved from Haiphong to Hanoi. Through God’s miraculous intervention, the property of the Hanoi Evangelical Church was purchased on May 14, 1918. Grace, who had studied Hebrew and Greek, translated the Bible into Vietnamese. William, a printer by trade, published the first complete Vietnamese Bible by 1926 - an amazing feat within such short time. By 1929, the churches in the North, Central and South of Vietnam were united under the Evangelical Church of Vietnam.
On October 15, 2016, one-hundred years after the work in Hanoi had begun, over 6,000 Christians gathered to celebrate the centennial anniversary. Much water has gone under the bridge since then, with the small Protestant church in Hanoi surviving three wars and numerous hardships. Yet, today the Hanoi Evangelical Church is alive and bursting at the seams with numerous services every weekday. In addition, over 300 churches from various denominations are spread throughout the city within a 1-hour radius.
Recent decades have seen many Vietnamese become Christian in foreign countries and then return back to Vietnam. Unique in Hanoi are denominations with roots in Russia, European and Asian nations, and North America, which are not splinter groups from the Hanoi Evangelical Church. Over the past five years, a great sense of unity, collaboration, and vision has developed among the church leaders in Hanoi.
The Protestant churches in Hanoi are ready for the next challenge: fully participating in all sectors of the city’s society. The new Law on Belief and Religion will go into effect on January 1, 2018, allowing churches to establish Christian institutions in the healthcare, education, and social sectors. With this in mind, a new theology is needed to face the urban challenges of tomorrow.