1592  — 1666

Johann Adam Schall von Bell

Jesuit missionary and astronomer in China.

Schall was born in Cologne, Germany. After his early studies, he went to Rome to study for the priesthood at the Roman College (the Jesuit college in Rome) and entered the Society of Jesus in 1611. He volunteered for the missions, was ordained a priest in 1618, and entered Macao the next year. Schall remained there for over two years and participated in the defense of the city against Dutch invaders. In 1623 he was in Peking (Beijing), where he assisted Hsu Kuangch’i in reforming the Chinese calendar. From 1627 to 1630 he was assigned to Sian (Xi’an) in Shensi (Shaanxi) Province, where he studied Chinese intensively and built a new church.

Recalled to the capital to replace a confrere who was then on his deathbed, Schall compiled essays on astronomy and mathematics, which were presented to the emperor Muslim and Chinese astronomers opposed the imperial sanction of the new methods. However, Schall set up a congregation of Christians in the palace and published several religious books. When Peking fell in 1644, first to a Chinese rebel and then to the Manchus, Schall was the only Westerner in the city to protect the Christian community. He proved his skills in astronomy to Manchu officials, who entrusted him with the calendar of the new dynasty and appointed him director of the astronomical bureau. With additional honorary titles, his position at court made him the protector of the Christian missions throughout China. In 1650 he received imperial permission to build a new mission compound in the capital, later called the Nan-t’ang (Nantang), South Church.

Johann Adam Schall von Bell and the emperor

As the Shun-chih emperor, who in his youth called Schall Ma-fa (Grandpa), turned more toward Buddhism, Muslim astronomers attacked Schall’s astronomical competence and his Christian teachings. On April 20, 1664, Schall suffered partial paralysis, such that his speech and movements were left impaired. Charged with treason and teaching false astronomy and a heterodox religion, Schall was imprisoned with three confreres, endured a state trial, and was condemned to death. An earthquake in Peking followed by a fire less than two weeks later frightened the judges, with the result that Schall and his confreres were set free. After Schall’s death, Ferdinand Verbiest, his successor at the bureau, asked for a new investigation, which led to the rehabilitation of Schall’s name and restoration of all his titles and ranks.


This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.


  • Johann Adam Schall von Bell, Historica narratio de initio et progressu missionis Societatis Jesu apud Sinenses (1665; repr, Historica relatio de ortu et progressu fidei orthodoxae in regno Chinansi permissionarios Societatis Jesu ab anna 1581 uqsue ad annum 1669, 1672). Rachel Attwater, Adam Schall: A Jesuit at the Court of China (1962); H. Bernard and P. Bornet, Lettres et memoires d’Adam Schall, S.J., relation historique (1942); R. Malek, ed., Johann Adam Schall 400th Anniversary Volume (1997); Louis Pfister, Notices biographiques et bibliographiques sur les Jesuites de l’ancienne mission de Chine (1932-1934; repr., 1975), pp. 162-170 (contains a list of Schall’s Chinese works); A. Vath, Johann Adam Schall von Bell: Missionar in China, Kaiserlicher Astronom und Ratgeber am Hofe von Peking, 1592-1666 (1933; repr., 1991).

About the Author

John W. Witek

Associate Professor of East Asian History, Georgetown University, Washington D.C., USA