Over the past four decades, Christianity has grown faster in China than anywhere else in the world. Daryl Ireland, a Boston University School of Theology research assistant professor of mission, estimates that the Christian community there has grown from 1 million to 100 million. What led to that explosion, centuries after the first Christian missionaries arrived in China? The BU scholars behind the China Historical Christian Database aim to find out.
The project, which allows researchers to visualize the history of Christianity in modern China, links web-based visualization tools with a database packed with the names and locations of missionaries, churches, schools, hospitals, and publications. Hosted by BU’s Center for Global Christianity & Mission, the project launched in 2018 and version 2.0 of the database is scheduled for release in 2023. The new version will double the amount of data previously available, providing approximately four million data points-names, occupations, locations, dates, and more-spanning four centuries (1550-1950).
The database began as a relatively modest class project. Alex Mayfield (STH’21) charted early 20th-century Pentecostals in Hong Kong for a history class taught by Eugenio Menegon at the BU Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. When Mayfield mentioned his research to Ireland, the pair began thinking about how to expand the work-by several centuries and across China. Mayfield, Menegon, and Ireland are now the principal investigators for the China Historical Christian Database.
Ireland spoke with The Brink about how the database could help scholars understand the relationships between China and the Western world.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The database was launched with seed money from BU’s Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering. In August 2021, the project received a $100,000 Digital Humanities Advancement Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.