Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in Asia

Presbyterian churches trace their origins to the Reformation, particularly to John Calvin.  Presbyterian theology emphasizes the sovereignty of God, leadership includes lay elders, and churches are organized regionally in presbyteries, synods and general assemblies.  There are varying degrees of commitment to statements of faith such as the Westminster Confession.

Presbyterianism came to Asia in the 17th century with the Dutch in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Malay Peninsular and Taiwan.  Later Scottish and English Presbyterians were traders, soldiers and members of mission societies and church missions in India, Malaya, Singapore and China.  American Presbyterians were missionaries in India, Thailand, China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines.  Australia Presbyterians had a mission in Korea and New Zealand Presbyterians have worked with the China Inland Mission (now Overseas Missionary Fellowship) and through their own mission board in Canton, Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia. 

From the early 19th century a common pattern was to combine itinerant evangelism and medicine with education and a commitment to the formation of independent national churches.  In the 20th century comity sometimes lead to shared arrangements for theological education and participation in union churches, as in India, China, Japan and the Philippines.  Migration and mission have seen the spread of Taiwanese and particularly Korean Presbyterianism elsewhere in Asia and to many parts of the world.  International networks include the Council for World Mission (formerly the London Missionary Society) and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.  Ecumenical involvement has been a common but not a universal feature and sometimes an occasion for controversy.

South Asia


American Presbyterian missions began in Lahore in 1849 and Sialkot in 1854. The Church of Scotland arrived in 1857.  Mass movements of depressed classes changed the focus of mission from the 1870s, but there was still involvement in higher education and Gujranwala Theological College was founded in 1877.  In 1904 the missions joined the Presbyterian Church of North India and in due course most became part of the Church of Pakistan in 1970.


Presbyterian work in India began with expatriate Scottish communities and Scots and American missions.  After 1813 the East India Company provided for Church of Scotland chaplains and churches in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.  The first chaplain, James Bryce, laid the foundation for wider involvement among soldiers and traders and mission among Hindus.  The Scottish Missionary Society sent a missionary in 1823.  John Wilson and his wife Margaret in Bombay from 1829, Alexander Duff in Calcutta from 1830, and John Anderson in Madras from1837 were pioneers of higher education.  American Presbyterians arrived in the 1830s including in Ludhiana and Allahabad.  The Farrukhabad Mission was the foundation of American Presbyterian work in Uttar Pradesh and responded to mass movements among low caste communities.  Work in Maharashtra was taken over from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in 1870.  Mission included village itineration, medical and agricultural work and education.  There was concern for rural development and for the situation of women. 

The northern churches formed the Presbyterian Church in India in 1904 which in 1924 became part of the United Church of North India and in 1970, the Church of North India. In the south, Scottish missions had an educational focus based on Madras Christian College.  Presbyterian churches joined the South India United Church and in 1947 became part of the Church of South India.  In Assam in the north east the Presbyterian Church of India remains as a distinct church. 


The Church of Bangladesh, formed in 1970, includes Presbyterians and others who were formerly part of the Church of Pakistan. It has links with Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.


The Dutch Reformed Church dates from 1642.  As the religion of the colonial government, its membership reached about 400,000 before the end of Dutch rule in 1796. Under the British, Church of Scotland chaplains were present from 1830 and the Dutch and Scottish Presbyterians united in 1882.  Membership has since reduced to about five thousand through migration and reversion to Catholicism and to other faiths.

South East Asia


The Presbyterian Church of Myanmar is concentrated in the Chin hills and on the lowlands close to the border with India.  It grew out of revival in the 1930s among Lushai Presbyterians in North East India and their migration from Assam, particularly after World War Two. It has some 30,000 members.


The Presbyterian church is now part of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT).  American Presbyterians sent their first missionaries in 1838 and work was centered on Chiang Mai and Bangkok.  In 1934 the churches joined with others to form the Church of Christ in Siam which became the CCT in 1939.  Missionaries left or were repatriated during World War Two and some churches experienced persecution.  After the war there was rapid growth.  By 1957 the Presbyterian Church of the USA had dissolved its mission into the CCT which still has a large number of churches of presbyterian background.


Presbyterianism came with the Dutch conquest of Melaka in 1641, but the community was small by the 19th century.  Later English speaking churches developed with British involvement in Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang and Chinese churches expanded north from Singapore and Johor.  In the 1950s missionaries relocated from China and served as a bridge between the two streams. An English Speaking Presbytery was formed by 1990. St Andrews Kuala Lumpur still maintains an expatriate ministry. There is a small Indian work and some outreach in Sarawak.


English and Chinese speaking streams were associated with the respective expatriate communities, and there was a strong component of Straits Chinese families.  The Scots community called their first minister in 1856 and the Presbyterian Church of England missionary J. A. B. Cook arrived in 1882 to lead the Chinese mission.  Migration and other links with Christians in South China and the work of the Presbyterian Church of England Mission were important.  Presbyterians have been involved in schools and in Trinity Theological College, founded in 1848.  The Bible Presbyterian Church has been influenced by the teaching of Carl McIntyre and the work of John Sung.


The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indishe Compagnie, or VOC) was formed in 1605 expanding Dutch influence which supplanted the Portuguese, Spanish and English in the region.  The Reformed church was the only officially accepted religion and began by taking over Catholic congregations (freedom of religion was only allowed from 1807). Mission work was carefully controlled.  The Reformed character of the church remained strong though some of the missionary societies which began work after the government took over from the VOC in 1800 were more broadly evangelical.  In 1935 the church was separated from the government.  Reformed confessions remain widely accepted and churches are often regional.  Many of a presbyterian character are associated with the Gereja Protestan Indonesia (GPI) which held its first plenary Synod in 1936.  By 1993 the membership was some 9 million. Most larger Protestant churches are members of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and some are also members of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod.  


Within weeks of the American sinking of the Spanish fleet off Manila on May 1, 1898 American Presbyterians decided to enter the Philippines.  James Rodgers arrived in April 1899 and a church was established by 1900.  Comity arrangements among Protestants were made in 1901 as part of an Evangelical Union.  Comity was remarkably successful until it inevitably broke down with increasing mobility, theological diversity and the rise of independent churches.  Presbyterians were allocated Luzon south of Manila, and part of the western Visayas.  As part of the United Evangelical Church of the Philippines formed in 1929, in 1948 they helped form the United Church of Christ.  Educational involvement included Silliman Institute (1899), later Silliman University, and Union Theological Seminary (1907).  The Philippines Christian Reformed Church was founded in 1961 and the Korean Evangelical Presbyterian Mission founded 4 local congregations by 1983 and convened a presbytery in 1987.

North East Asia


Presbyterians were among the early LMS and ABCFM missionaries from Britain and America and mission was supported by some among the trading community in Canton including David Olyphant.  The Presbyterian Mission Press in Macao in 1844, then in Ningpo and in Shanghai from 1860 was a major source of Christian and general literature.  The English Presbyterian Mission was active in Xiamen (Amoy) from 1851 along with the Reformed Church of America and in Shantou (Swatow) from 1856.  American missionaries were successful in Shandong province from 1862 and in Manchuria the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Irish Presbyterians had a presence from 1869.  By 1907 there were 12 Presbyterian missions in China from England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the United States and New Zealand and presbyteries and synods had been established in a number of areas.  The Presbyterian Church of China was formed that year.  In 1927 it became part of the Church of Christ in China.

Strategy and experience saw development from medical clinics to teaching hospitals, and from local schools to Colleges and universities.  Three-self ideals were not always easy to realize, but patterns established by John Campbell Gibson, John Nevius, and Calvin Mateer were important.  Many such as W. A. P. Martin gained great respect for Chinese culture at the same time as they became committed to sharing the best of their own, though this was not always well understood.  Congregations associated with Presbyterian mission have largely flowed into the China Christian Council and have sought to work within the framework of the Three Self Patriotic Movement.  Though formal links were broken after 1950 some Presbyterian forms and emphases remain.  Presbyterians overseas have related to the Amity Foundation and personally to different parts of the church in China.


The Dutch presence on Formosa in the 17th century included pastoral work in Sinckan by Goergius Candidus from 1627-1639.  The Presbyterian Church of England Mission worked in the south from 1865 and Canadian Presbyterians in the north from 1871. A North Formosa Presbytery was formed in 1904 and the Taiwan Synod in 1912. There is distinct work among Hakka peoples, native Taiwanese tribal peoples and Chinese nationalists fleeing from the mainland with the fall of China to the Communists in 1949.  The Presbyterian church has represented a social conscience and been subject to government pressure.


Missionaries from the major American Presbyterian groups began work following the 1854 Japanese-American treaty, beginning with the arrival of James Hepburn and his wife Clara from the PCUSA in 1859. The PCUS began at Kochi on Shikolu in 1855, the Reformed Church in America in Ngasaki in 1859 and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Osaka from 1876.  The Yokohama Kaigan Church was established in 1872 and the Japan Christian United Church (Presbyterian) in 1877.  Scottish missions contributed to medical work from 1874 to 1900.  A theological seminary was started in Kobe in 1907 and a Women’s Christian College in 1918.  The famous Christian social reformer Toyohiko Kagawa was a graduate of Kobe.  Under the Religious Organizations Law (1839) the Japan Presbyterian Church became part of the United Church of Christ in Japan (Nihonn Kirisuto Kyodan) with 30 other denominations in 1941.  After the Law was abolished in 1945 some left to form the Japan Christian Reformed Church in 1951.


Presbyterian involvement spread from Manchuria.  Dr Horace and Frances Allen of the PCUSA moved from Shanghai in 1884 and began medical work. Horace Underwood of the Reformed Church arrived the following year.  A Presbyterian Council was created in 1889 and Presbyterians from Canada, the United States and Australia were active from the early 1900s, but response was slow before revival from about 1903 to 1910. The methods of John Nevius proved invaluable in establishing norms of bible study and witness among lay people.  The Union Presbyterian Church in Korea held its first General Assembly in 1912.  Protestant comity arrangements were important at an early stage.  The biggest difficulties faced by Christians in general were those caused by Japanese occupation and debates over compulsory Shinto worship.  Christian work was strongest in the North before World War Two and the Soviet occupation.  The  Presbyterian churches and missions jointly operated a theological seminary (Presbyterian Theological Seminary created by Samuel Moffett in Pyongyang in 1901), bible schools, hospitals, schools and colleges. Severance Medical College and Hospital grew out of Allen’s early work, and in particular gained a high reputation.

The Korean war caused enormous suffering, and the ongoing division of the country is a source of tension.  In this situation the Church in South Korea has grown rapidly.  Presbyterians continue to form one of the major denominational groups, but are split into over a hundred different Presbyterian churches.  Korean Christians show a dedicated spirituality and a high commitment to global mission. 

American Presbyterians in India/Pakistan 150 years. Journal of Presbyterian History  62(3) 1984.

Brown, G. Thompson. Earthen Vessels and Transcendent Power. American Presbyterians in China, 1837-1952, Orbis, Maryknoll, 1997.De Jong, Gerald F. The Reformed Church in China 1842-1951. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.

Heuser, Frederick J. A Guide to Foreign Missionary Manuscripts in the Presbyterian Historical Society, Greenwood, 1988.

Hewat, E. G. K. Vision and Achievement 1796 – 1956. A history of the Foreign Missions of the Churches united in the Church of Scotland. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1960.

Hood, George. Neither Bang nor Whimper. The end of a missionary era in China, Presbyterian Church in Singapore, 1991.

Stock, Frederick and Margaret. People movements in the Punjab with special reference to the United Presbyterian Church, William Carey Library, 1975.

Walls, Andrew F. “Missions,” in Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ed. Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993. 

John Roxborogh,  in Scott Sunquist, ed., Dictionary of Christianity in Asia, Eerdmans, 2000.