Monday, July 12, 2010

John Sung's spiritual encounter in perspective

(Photo taken from

I came to know about John Sung through Steven. And he came to know about him through, if I'm correct, Stephen Tong. When we first learned about him, we held Sung on the pedestal. He exemplifies the apostolic evangelists narrated in the books of Acts. This is also due to Stephen Tong's constant public hailing of Sung in the former's weekly sermon.

I wrote an essay for Church History class in uncovering the history of the theological scene in Singapore in the first half of the twentieth century. I didn't plan to write anything about John Sung.

As I researched more into my topic, I discover that John Sung actually played a vital part in the theological scene in Singapore at that time. Here is an edited portion extracted from my essay which I have recently updated for my own archive

Many have hailed Sung in his missionary work. Many sympathize with Sung's spiritual encounter at the mental hospital in which he was confined. Many see Sung as the epitome of their personal struggle with theology vis-a-vis spirituality. I'm here pointing out an over-looked perspective of Sung's spiritual encounter and let you decide whether should that encounter be an epitome:

Even today, many Chinese Christians, including some very eminent retired Christian leaders, still trace their Christian conversions and/or commitments to Sung’s work in Southeast Asia.

(Irene Tay, Hwa Yung, and The China Group, ‘Sung, John’ in A Dictionary of Asian Chrisitanity, Scott W. Sunquist, ed. (USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), p.808.)

An Anglican archdeacon remarked, “
The reason why so many Chinese pastors are conservative is that they were revived through Dr. Sung’s Bible-centred preaching. He set the example. He took the Bible seriously and would expound the whole Bible chapter by chapter.[i] The archdeacon’s remark reveals that these Chinese leaders hailed Sungian theology as orthodoxy and hence ‘conservative’. A rather questionable equation, of course. He also reveals that Sung’s theological influence was pervasive and taken deep rooting in the local community.

One of the local prominent Christian leaders, Timothy Tow, who was converted through Sung’s ministry and founded the Far Eastern Bible College in 1962,[ii] testified to this. He considered himself as a “
lover of John Sung.”[iii]

John Sung visited Singapore seven times in the period from June 1935 to December 1939.[iv] The Chin Lien Bible College was established on the fourteenth of May 1937 by his assistant Leona Wu to advance the propagation of the Sungian theology among the locals. The vision of the college was known “
to further train John Sung converts for the Lord's vineyard.[v] The college in its current form is known as Chin Lien Bible Seminary, which is located at 15, Green Lane. As a result, a lot of the Chinese Christians were influenced by his approach to theology. The ones who are most affected by Sung were particularly those who came to the faith through his ministry.

He was a brilliant man who obtained a Ph.D in Chemistry at the Ohio State University, U.S.A, in 1926. Instead of pursuing a career in the science, Sung decided to venture into life-long Christian ministry. Hence he enrolled into the Union Theological Seminary in New York to pursue his theological studies.

In the seminary, he was disturbed and confused by the intellectual engagement required and hence gradually failing to relate to his faith. Although on papers he did well in his first term at Union, with scores above 90 percent in most of his subjects,[vi] Sung was fundamentally unable to engage with the intellectual rigour of the course.

He was not familiar with the western approaches to issues like the relationship between the intellect and faith. Hence he went into severe depression and was contemplating suicide. Sung’s psychosis was noticed by his close friends. As one of them, Rolfin Walker, wrote, “A
t Union, [Sung] studied with feverish intensity, trying to do three men’s work at the same time. In the course of the year he sent me a letter which struck me as incoherent and as the product of an overstrained brain. I enclosed it to Dr. Coffin, suggesting that he needed medical attention.[vii]

In that intense and deranged psychological state, Sung had an unusual encounter on the night of the tenth of February 1927.[viii] He claimed that Jesus Christ appeared and spoke to him. Right after that, with the newfound confidence in his encounter, to pick the least assuming word, “experience” he castigated his lecturer, Harry E. Fosdick of the Union Theological Seminary, “Y
ou are of the devil. You made me lose my faith![ix]

John Sung’s sudden and extreme religiosity is now better understood through a series of experiments conducted by researchers at York University. The researchers studied 600 participants’ tendency towards religiosity when they are stimulated to a state of anxiety. “Researchers found that religious zeal reactions were most pronounced among participants with bold personalities (defined as having high self-esteem and being action-oriented, eager and tenacious), who were already vulnerable to anxiety, and felt most hopeless about their daily goals in life.[x]

As a person, Sung shared significant characteristics with those participants who possess bold personalities. The York University’s research provides us a benchmark to understand Sung’s reaction in relation to the tremendous anxiety that was crippling him during his time at Union Theological Seminary. When Sung was subjected to the overwhelming condition, his religious experience was activated as a natural psychological reaction due to his bold personalities.

Following his derision of his lecturer, Sung was being confined in the Bloomingdale Hospital against his will. To be sure, he did a psychological exam before the detention. It was during this 193 days of confinement that Sung claimed to have read through the Bible forty times and emerged as a different person (got well from his psychosis?).[xi] After his release, Sung travelled back to China and started his missionary work, carrying with him his psychologically traumatized theology to which many parts of South East Asia have uncritically accepted as orthodoxy.

[i] Bobby Sng, In His Good Time (Singapore: Bible Society of Singapore, 1980, 3rd Ed., 2003), p.201-233.

[ii] Far Eastern Bible College, A Short History of Far Eastern Bible College, (accessed on 25 May 2010). See also Bob Phee, ed., Far Eastern Bible College Silver Jubilee Magazine (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College, 1987), p.23.

[iii] Timothy Tow, John Sung and the Asian Awakening,, the last paragraph (accessed on 24 May 2010).

[iv] Irene Tay, Hwa Yung, and The China Group, ‘Sung, John’ in A Dictionary of Asian Chrisitanity, Scott W. Sunquist, ed. (USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), p.807-808.

[v] Timothy Tow, John Sung, my Teacher (Singapore: Christian Life Publisher, 1985), chapter 24. The online version can be found here (accessed 25 May 2010).

[vi] Leslie T. Lyall, ‘A Biography of John Sung’ in John Sung (Singapore: Armour Publishing, 2005), p.33.

[vii] Ibid, p.37.

[viii] Levi, compiled, The Journal Once Lost: Extracts from the Diary of John Sung (Singapore: Genesis Books, 2008), p.42.

[ix] Timothy Tow, John Sung and the Asian Awakening, (accessed on 24 May 2010).

[x] York U researchers find anxiety may be at root of religious extremism, (accessed 8 July 2010)

[xi] William E. Schubert, ‘I Remember John Sung’ in John Sung (Singapore: Armour Publishing, 2005), p.256.


galven said...

What are the distinctives of this Sungian theology?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Galven,

"Sungian" is just a short-hand for me to refer to God-loving people who follow John Sung's teaching.

As it seems to me, one of the distinctives of Sungian theology is an antagonistic stance towards critical reflection over Christianity.

Are you writing a history of John Sung as your assignment?