1876  — 1967

Frank A. Brown

During thirty-eight years of ministry in China, Brown planted churches, trained leaders, promoted the full indigenization of the Chinese church, and engaged in emergency relief and medical work.

Early Years

Francis Augustus Brown was born on a farm in Prince George County, Virginia, December 4, 1876, the oldest of five children. When he was five, a fire destroyed his family’s home, so they move to nearby Petersburg, where his father became an elder in a Presbyterian church. Later, they moved to Portsmouth for his father to start a new business venture, the Portsmouth Basket Works. Frank went to high school in Portsmouth and wanted to go to college, but his parents lacked the money, so he worked as an accountant in the Basket Works factory for three years. He then went into business for himself to earn money for college. In the spring of 1898 he stopped work in order to study Greek and Latin in preparation for entrance to Hampden-Sydney College, Virginia, which he entered in the fall of that year.

Although he had to take time out of school in order to earn more money, he eventually graduated with the “second honor” and delivered the “philosophical oration” at commencement in June 1901. He wanted to go on to seminary, but again lacked funds, so he served as Secretary of the YMCA in South Boston, Virginia, for two years. His duties included being a gym instructor, teaching night classes for men and boys, doing janitorial work, instructing swimming, and recruiting new members. The YMCA cooperated with various Protestant denominations, a practice which Brown valued all his life.

He entered Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, which was then on the campus of Hampden-Sydney College. He liked and did well in subjects like Greek, theology, and Church history, but he did not enjoy Hebrew and some other courses, because he thought they were not relevant or not well-taught. He left the seminary suddenly after only two years, partly because of finances but also because he did not want to continue taking courses he did not enjoy. He later called his treatment of the seminary “shoddy.” He did not graduate with a degree, but was given a certificate of some sort, which allowed him to be ordained.

Moving Towards Missions

He served as YMCA College Secretary for the Commonwealth (State) of Virginia, which entailed traveling all over Virginia for two years, then worked in a church at Coalton, West Virginia. All the members – who numbered only thirteen – were coal miners. More and more, however, Brown sensed a leading to overseas missions. In 1907 he joined the Forward Movement in the Presbyterian Church US (South) as a member of the staff. For the next two years, he traveled to eight states to promote the cause of world missions.

As early as the age of twelve, Brown had made some sort of commitment to be a missionary. Missionary biographies fed this sense of leading, but participation in the “Y” in college moved him closer and closer to overseas service. He did not want to leave his family unsupported, however. Two close friends, as well as support from churches in Petersburg and Norfolk, Virginia, over the years made it financially possible for Brown to leave his parents and younger siblings and become a missionary. The two greatest influences upon Brown were John R. Mott, of the Student Volunteer Movement, and Robert E. Speer, executive secretary for the Presbyterian Board of World Missions (North) in his formative years of missionary thinking.

The Edinburgh Missionary conference of 1910, with its watchword, “the evangelization of the world in this generation,” made a profound impact on him. He later defined evangelism as “the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who have not heard or do not understand.”

Finally, on June 23, 1910, Frank Brown was ordained by the Norfolk Presbytery. He sailed for Asia the next month.

First Year in China

Brown had been commissioned by the Presbyterian Executive Committee for Foreign Missions to visit missionaries and observe their work in Japan, Korea, and China. His report was later published as a pamphlet and used by the Forward Movement for recruitment of new works and solicitation of financial support.

As soon as he landed in Yokahoma, Japan, in August 1910, he proceeded to visit Presbyterian missionaries in Japan, which had just suffered a major flood. He then went to Korea, where he travelled by horse, boats, ponies, and rail to various mission stations, including those in Pyongyang, which at the time had “the largest concentration of Protestant mission work in the world” and many Korean Christians.

He next sailed to Shanghai, China, whence he commenced a tour to visit Presbyterian missionaries in Hangzhou, Jiaxing, Suzhou, Nanjing, Zhanjiang, Huaiyin, and Suqian. “At each place he brought greetings from the home church, talked with church leaders through an interpreter, [and] asked many questions.” He was struck and dismayed by the multitude of competing Protestant denominations and missions, and even more by rivalries and factions among them.

Doubtless, this initial exposure to missionaries and local Christians in three countries, especially China, provided Brown with an extraordinary and invaluable introduction to his life’s work.

In China, American Presbyterians were divided into two fields: The Mid-China Mission, composed of missionaries living south of the Yangzi River, and the North China Jiangsu Missions, composed of missionaries living to the north of the Yangzi River. Of the two, the Mid-China Mission was considered more liberal. At the local level, a “Station” was responsible for the work carried on in that city or region and governed finances, schools, and hospitals. Local congregations with Chinese ministers and elders were governed by the Presbytery.

"Presbytery of North of the River" (Yangtze), 1936

All missionaries received the same salary, with medical and dentals expenses also covered. A one-year furlough was granted after seven years on the field, later changed to five years as transportation improved.

Brown began language study in Taizhou (Taichow), Jiangsu, which lay in the North China Mission region. He lived with Calvin Norris Caldwell, an experienced missionary whose family had remained home after their furlough. He had a full-time language teacher who knew no English. Brown was told to memorize the radicals for Chinese characters. His teacher also took him regularly to the marketplace, where they would converse with shopkeepers.

In December 1910, he attended a Christian conference for all of China that was held in Wuhan. Traveling by the Grand Canal and the Yangzi River further increased his knowledge of China and its people. At the conference, he was impressed by the great number of Chinese Christians in attendance, the long distances they had travelled to attend, “the evangelistic services each evening attended by as many as 10,000 people, the marked ability of the native leaders, and the godly fellowship of missionaries representing 25 different mission boards.”


In 1911 Brown was transferred to Xuzhou (Suchowfu), a large city occupying a strategic position as the junction of both north-south and east-west railways. The mission station there consisted of a men’s hospital, women’s hospital, boys’ orphanage, girls’ school, and a church with about five hundred baptized members. 

Along with George Stevens, Frank Brown was assigned to do country evangelistic work in the surrounding area. This remained his lifelong passion. Although his language study was interrupted many times, he eventually made good progress by focusing on the spoken language of the people. Over the years, he would go out often on ten-day trips to visit country churches for ministry.

Brown met Charlotte Thompson, one of two sisters who came to Xuzhou not long after he did. They were married in Shanghai before the American consul on August 1, 1914. Theirs was a long and happy union, marked by full companionship in ministry to the Chinese. Their first child, Frank Augustus Brown, Jr., was born in December 1915.

At the time Brown arrived in China and throughout the next few decades, the work of the missionaries followed a mostly regular rhythm, punctuated by disruptions caused by the constant fighting among warlords, as well as by famines, the Japanese war, and the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. On several occasions, the missionaries, or sometimes the women among them, were ordered to evacuate. On one such occasion, Charlotte wrote, “Not once have I felt afraid for our lives, but we are desperate when we think of the Chinese and China.” in 1912, there was a terrible famine, made worse by war, banditry, and disease. As in previous years in China, during such times “all normal [missionary] activity was suspended in order to help meet the crisis.”

Brown joined the others in grain distribution. Charlotte went out with others “at night to old temples in the city where hundreds of refugees were sleeping on the dirt floor” to place food tickets in the hands of the refugees so that they could be fed in an orderly fashion the next day.

First Furlough and Continued Ministry

Brown and his family took their first furlough in August of 1917 and returned in September of 1918, finding conditions even worse than when they had left.

Still, despite the dangers involved, Brown made “the planting and nurture of the country church and the training of its leaders” his top priority, inspired by Paul’s ambition to preach the gospel “not where Christ has already been named” (Romans 15:20). The region around Xuzhou, stretching about forty miles north and south and seventy miles east and west, contained a population of around 1.5 million. When Brown arrived, there were eleven churches; a few years later, regular worship was being held in thirty-nine villages, called “preaching points.” Most were led by laymen. Despite the work of three missionaries and of Chinese Christians, Brown wrote that “the load that lies heaviest on my heart is the fate of the 4,000 villages in the Suchowfu field where Christ has never been named, not a single Christian in them.”

A Country Church (Yang Lou) circa 1930

To meet this need, he bought a motorcycle, which he replaced with a Model T Ford in 1922. Brown had a tent constructed that could hold about two hundred people, in which he and several Chinese lay evangelists would take turns with the preaching, “which [was] continuous for about seven hours a day,” with rests for the preachers in a nearby room. They also offered Christian books for sale. At night, the tent served as living quarters for Brown and his wife and child. 

Medical work occupied a key place in their ministry. “A team of doctors, nurses, and aides would go with the tent to some outstation far distant from any medical facility. The tent would provide space for simple operations and treatments and also a place for the teaching and demonstration of public health and hygiene.”

In this way, hundreds of villages were reached by the missionaries and their Chinese co-workers. Nor were their efforts without fruit: “A photograph shows the team in front of the tent ‘holding in their hands a number of paper idols, kitchen gods, which new believers had torn down from their home and handed to our preachers as trophies showing that had turned from idols to serve the living God.”

The third and “by far most difficult” part of country ministry was the training of leaders. Faced with poverty and the long distances believers might have to travel, many methods were tried. The most promising church members were offered scholarships to engage in formal study. These were sent to the seminary in Nanjing, Nanjing University, the medical college in Shandong, the normal school in Tengxian, and the Tengxian Women’s Bible School. Following Nevius’ example in Korea, they held Bible classes lasting from ten to fourteen days during the winter, in which they taught not only the Bible, but also music, the catechism, church finances, and leadership training for elders and deacons. 

They did not immediately baptize those who indicated interest in the gospel. Such a person would first be enrolled as an “inquirer,” and given more teaching of the Bible and Christian faith. After a while, if they seemed to have genuine faith and sufficient knowledge, they would be baptized. 

Public health education was always a priority, since Brown believed that missionaries and Christians should not only preach the gospel but also do what they could to improve the worldly lot of the people.

Charlotte’s Role

From the beginning, Charlotte was a full partner in ministry. She traveled in the country by sedan chair, rickshaw, motorcycle, automobile, and on foot, sharing the simple life of the rural folk whom she visited. She taught the Bible, the Catechism, literacy, singing, teaching methods, and how to pray to women, children, and mixed groups. Some instruction was formal, some was informal. Teaching older women how to read the new phonetic Chinese Bible was her specialty. 

Her son wrote that “her greatest contribution was in the founding of the Women’s Training Institute,” attended by married women, widows, and older girls to poor to attend school and too old to unbind their feet.” She also homeschooled her children until ninth grade, when the boys went off to the Shanghai American School, which was “one of the premium prep schools outside the United States.” Another son, George Thompson Brown, had been born in 1921 while they were vacationing in Kuling.

In 1922, the family moved into a two-story Western-style home in a new compound, which also had servants’ quarters, a one-story house in which Brown had his office, and two other homes for missionaries. The many trees which the missionaries planted made the compound into “an oasis of green.”

Rather than keeping the Chinese out, the Browns invited local children to play with their boys and opened their house on special occasions for Chinese people to visit.

Reasons for Slow Growth

In most fields, the church grew slowly. Brown attributed this to five major factors: 

  1. The authoritarian nature of Chinese society made it hard for an individual to make a break from the prevailing view. 
  2. Ancestor “worship,” which most Chinese Protestants considered idolatrous, was “the single most difficult hurdle for those who were attracted to Christianity. “
  3. The “foreign” nature of Christianity and its association with Western imperialism turned many away, lest they be considered unpatriotic. 
  4. Illiteracy made adherence to and growth in a “religion of the Book” difficult, so missionaries almost always had to teach believers to read, later using the phonetic Chinese Bible and Christian literature. 
  5. “One catastrophe after another” made sustained periods of advance almost impossible, as an almost unending series of calamities was attributed to the foreign religion.

Second Furlough and Beyond

The Browns took their second furlough in July of 1924 and returned in September of 1925.

1927 brought “tragedy, disillusionment, disappointment, discouragement, doubt, uncertainty, and perplexity,” as the Northern Expedition and the Anti-Christian Movement forced more than a thousand Protestant missionaries to evacuate to coastal cities for safety. Most of them, like the Browns, “hated to leave,” and Chinese Christians at first urged them to stay, but later advised that the presence of the foreigners would not help their Chinese friends.

The Brown family went to Qingdao, but Frank Brown made seven trips back to Xuzhou in 1927, braving great danger and leaving his wife and children behind. When in September 1929 they finally returned from what they termed “exile” after seventeen months, soldiers were still occupying their home, but they were glad to be back “home.”

Goal: A “Three-Self” Church

The mission’s properties were mostly intact, though they had been looted. More positively, they discovered that Chinese Christian leaders had developed in maturity and confidence. Before leaving, the missionaries had overseen the appointment of a committee “eighteen Chinese church leaders who would have full responsibility for all the work.” Such a transfer of power to indigenous Christians was considered highly revolutionary at the time, but Brown considered it a great success. He urged that the Chinese be given greater responsibility and authority on an ongoing basis, but both the Chinese and mission leaders thought that would be unwise. In the end, a Cooperative Committee was formed that included both foreign and Chinese members and held “all authority hitherto possessed by the Suchowfu Station [i.e, the missionaries], with the exception of matters exclusively affecting the missionaries.”

Their goal had always been to create a self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating church. Leadership training aimed to produce pastors, evangelists, and elders and deacons who could lead their own church. A presbytery had long before been established, with Chinese clergy and elders meeting to govern their own church affairs.

As one missionary put it, “The foreign staff found that their Chinese colleagues could get along perfectly well without them, and the Chinese found that they couldn’t… . We each got a higher opinion of the other.”

Not all went smoothly, however. In addition to opposition from many missionaries, who thought that the Chinese Christians were not yet ready to administer all the properties and institutions that had been established, there was also government opposition. The new Nationalist government required all private schools to register, forbade the compulsory teaching of religion, and compelled faculty, staff, and students to bow before a picture of Sun Yat-sen.

Missionaries and Chinese leaders were divided among themselves about how to resolve these issues, especially the matter of bowing to the image of a man. The Chinese did not want to send their children to anti-Christian schools. They solved the registration problem by turning over all the station schools to the Chinese presbytery, which somehow was able “somehow to get around the prohibition against Bible instruction and keep the schools open.”

Third Furlough and War with Japan

The Browns sailed from Shanghai on furlough in July of 1932, traveling through Asia and then the Middle East and Europe. When they returned a year later, the Japanese had already seized much of northern China and had committed aggression and atrocities in Shanghai. The war against Japan would dominate everyone’s life for the next eight years.

A great flood in 1936 left hundreds of thousands of peasants homeless. The International Famine Relief Commission asked Brown to head up a massive relief effort, which involved employing refugees in building roads. This was the biggest disaster relief job Brown ever had, and led to his making suggestions for improving the way the government built roads. In the process, he was able to work with Roman Catholics in a joint famine relief program.

After the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, Japanese aggression posed a huge crisis for missionaries, who were told that they must decide individually whether to move to safety or to remain at their posts. Now, “the church leaders were urging them to stay. This time America and the missionary were squarely on the side of the Chinese nation. The presence of the missionary could help temper the brutality of the Japanese military. Missionaries would observe any atrocities and write home,” influencing public opinion.

Mission work in Xuzhou carried on as before, despite bombing from Japanese airplanes and increasing danger from the advancing Japanese army. In 1937 Madame Chiang Kai-shek visited the missionaries “to express for her husband, the Generalissimo, and for herself thanks and appreciation for what they were doing for China.”

After the city fell to the Japanese in the May 1938, refugees poured into the mission compound. The Japanese totally looted the city, but the missionaries were not molested. Brown visited the Japanese general “and was well received and promised protection.” Chinese Christian leaders, on the other hand, were arrested and some were tortured. When he learned of a particularly outrageous atrocity, Brown went to a Japanese officer, who investigated the matter and punished the perpetrators.

Fourth Furlough and Return to War-Torn China

When the time came for his family’s next furlough, Brown hesitated at first, wanting to remain, but then he realized he could plead the cause of the Chinese both in Japan on his way home and then in the United States. A visit to a high official in Tokyo brought an end to the torture in Xuzhou. While at home, Brown spoke widely and wrote articles to newspapers protesting America’s sale of scrap iron and oil to the Japanese.

Before they returned to China in 1940, Brown received the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity (DD) from his alma mater, Hampden-Sydney College.

Back in Xuzhou, the Browns resumed country itineration and church planting, despite dangers from the fighting between occupying Japanese soldiers and guerilla fighters, who were mostly Communists. They witnessed atrocities but could not stop them. Staying on good terms was necessary in order for the schools and hospital to keep running, so they sometimes threw parties for the Japanese and tried to maintain friendly relations with them. Most of the time, the Japanese treated them well, giving passes for travel in the countryside and not molesting them.

Charlotte and another missionary went to Shanghai in November 1941 in anticipation of almost certain hostilities between Japan and the United States. After Pearl Harbor was attacked, Americans became citizens of an enemy nation, but missionaries were mostly treated well. The hospital remained open for almost four months, with Brown serving as superintendent, though he was no longer allowed to travel in the countryside.

Finally, all missionaries were ordered to leave Xuzhou for Shanghai, where they joined others who were to be repatriated to the United States. Some Chinese believers accompanied them all the way to Shanghai to say farewell.

At Home and then Back to China

The Browns spent the war years (1942–1945) in western Virginia, where Frank was pastor of the Norton Presbyterian Church.

After the war, they sailed with other missionaries to China. As they streamed into Shanghai harbor, they described their feelings as “the thrill of our lives” and compared that occasion “to that of the [Jewish] pilgrims returning from Exile” in Babylon, quoting Psalm 126:1–2 to express their joy.

Christians in Xuzhou welcomed them warmly and told them of the bitter years of Japanese occupation, in which God had enabled most of them to stand firm. The Annual Report for the Presbyterian Mission wrote, “Their endurance and courage became a saga in the annals of history.”

Brown was appointed to the Presbyterian Survey Committee, which was to ascertain the conditions of the Chinese field and make recommendations. The committee soon decided that the two missions (North and Mid-China) should be merged into one and reassigned a large number of older missionaries to resume the work. It also decided that “Chinese Church leaders would be consulted as to the return of each China missionary.”

The committee reported, “The enforced absence of missionaries … brought some compensations to the native church. While aggressive evangelism lagged and pioneering stopped, yet the church in some ways grew stronger. Leaders developed initiative, factions compromised their differences; self support increased, cowardly Church members dropped out; persecution toughened the fiber of the Church, which was thrown back on the presence of Her Living Lord.”

Many on the Survey Committee wanted to turn over all authority over personnel and finances to the Chinese, but Brown, thinking that some of the Chinese church leaders “seemed a bit too anxious to get authority over foreign money and foreign missionaries,” suggested a slower transition. He saw that “the Chinese Christian leadership had been decimated and scattered. They had been exhausted by the long years of carrying on alone.” Additionally, much of the property needed extensive and expensive renovation. 

He wrote, “The Chinese leaders frankly say they cannot carry the load.” 

Renewed Ministry

As much as possible, Brown resumed his former activities. The Chinese-run Presbytery reappointed him to country itineration, which made him very happy. Their home was a center of activity, with dinner parties for pastors and their wives, hospital staff, and school teachers. Sometimes as before, they opened their house to all who wanted to come see how they lived. Missionaries en route to their stations, as well as refugees, news reporters, and staff from the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) were all welcomed.

As a result of the devastation of war with Japan and now the civil war, relief work again took prominence, and the mayor of Xuzhou appointed Brown to lead an inter-faith committee to obtain funds from various agencies. Soup kitchens fed thousands of children and refugees. Until 1948, Brown was able to obtain travel permits from the Communist general to pass through the territory he controlled.

The mission schools and hospitals were full, and churches were well-attended. Once again, Brown acted as director and treasurer for the hospital when there were no medical missionaries at the station. Charlotte visited the wards in the afternoon. When a cholera epidemic broke out in 1946, teams were sent to the countryside to inoculate all they could, especially the children. Charlotte resumed leadership of the women’s training institute.

As it became clear that the Communists would soon occupy Xuzhou, the American consul advised that Charlotte and the other women and children go to Shanghai until after the annual mission meeting. Brown insisted upon returning to Xuzhou one more time. The Christians did not want him to leave.

He remained in Xuzhou for six weeks after the Communists occupied the city, “visiting churches and hospitals, visiting the wounded Nationalist soldiers, disbursing drugs to places it would do the most good. He was invited to preach in several of the churches and went freely throughout the city, but not in the countryside… . Worship services continued as usual … [and] a number of new members were received.”

Finally, a pass was issued that allowed him travel to Shanghai. Charlotte had already sailed home, since both the consul and the mission leaders had advised all Americans to leave China. Frank sailed home alone in March of 1949. He was 73, and he had served with his wife in China for 38 years.

His son Frank, who was a medical missionary, stayed on in China with his own family for another six months, ready and willing to work under the new regime as they had under previous authorities, including the Japanese. Like other missionaries, they were eager to cooperate with the church in China. They only left after “confiscation of mission property, nationalization of schools and hospitals, exorbitant taxes, restriction on travel and other forms of harassment made it clear that cooperation in any form would not be welcome.”

Final Years and Legacy

Brown served in various country churches in West Virginia coal-mining territory, in North Carolina until he had to undergo treatment for leprosy in 1953. After being cured, he moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where he preached frequently in area churches.

Charlotte died in 1950.

Frank and Charlotte Brown, in Norton, VA, 1945

In 1960, he made a trip to Japan and Korea and visited his son Frank, who with his family had been transferred to Korea to serve as a medical missionary.

Thirteen years after he had left China, he heard of the death of the last Protestant missionary to leave China. Many wondered what would become of Christianity there. In response, he composed a pamphlet, “The Last of the Eight Thousand: Will the Church in China Survive?” 

In it he admitted that mistakes had been made: “(1) The missionary force was numerically inadequate to evangelize such a vast population. (2) The lack of cooperation among the denominations. (3) We missionaries wasted time over trifles. We got lost amid details.”

Then he gave reasons why he believed the church would survive: “(1) The endurance of the church down through history. (2) The loyalty of Chinese Christians in the face of martyrdom. (3) The availability of the Bible, which had been translated” into Chinese. (4) And the power of the Gospel to overcome all obstacles.” 

Speaking for all missionaries, he concluded, “If you ask us, we will all reply that we are sure that the church will survive.”

In fact, his grandson, who visited Xuzhou in 2002, took photographs of two of the churches which his father had served, including one in the country. Both were well-attended and active in ministry.

Frank A. Brown died after suffering a fall and broken hip in 1967, at the age of ninety. Throughout his life, he had been marked by enthusiasm, optimism, faith in God, and a strong desire to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the lost. His interests were wide, and included  History; sports, especially swimming; and science, particularly astronomy.

The words on a scroll presented to Frank Brown before he left Xuzhou tell the story: “All who are able to speak, praise his preaching, his medical relief and his scholarship because he did this without sparing himself. He organized eighteen churches and over fifty chapels. The reason he accomplished all this was due to his tireless efforts.”


G. Thompson Brown, Legacy: Frank A. Brown of China. Atlanta, GAG. Thompson Brown, 2004. All quotations and images are from this book.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

Director, Global China Center; English Editor, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.