Book Review: The Diary of John Sung

John Sung
(compiled by Levi Sung)
The Diary of John Sung: Extracts from His Journals and Notes
Singapore: Armour Publishing, 2011
432pp + xl, S$28

The Diary of John Sung was collected from his journals and notes, which was compiled by Levi Sung. The book is an updated version of the previously published The Journal Once Lost: Extracts from the Diary of John Sung (Armour Publishing, 2008) and claims to offer “a new, more dynamic and accurate translation” of his journals (from the back cover). Unfortunately I haven’t read the 2008 version so I can’t say much about it (not to mention that I can’t understand Chinese as well).

The book opens with an introductory chapter by Levi. She recalled how the journals were once lost and miraculously found later. They were taken by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, and were only returned years later — twice, in 1970 and 1984. This book itself comes not only from Sung’s diaries, but also from his oral recollections which were penned down in various time points during his ministry. These materials were then compiled and sorted chronologically to fit Sung’s life.

In Chapter 1, Sung related the story of his parents and his childhood. OK, this is not important, but here I found that I not only share the same birth-day with Sung, but also the same given name. His name was Shangjie, but his nickname was Tian-en, which means ‘heavenly grace’ (p. 3). I am pretty sure that I have the same ‘Tian’ with Sung. He also named his children with Tian-[something], which means Heaven’s-[something], which would then correspond with the theme of the book of the Bible according to its canonical order (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc., until Joshua). Levi, then, is Sung’s third child.

In Chapter 2, we read about Sung’s (undergraduate, postgraduate, and theological) studies in America — and his time in Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, where he managed to read the Bible 40 times in 193 days. Personally this chapter interests me the most. I have heard his another legendary story of throwing away his certificates for I-don’t-know-how-many-times-already, and it was nice to read how Sung himself recalled this story: “I was on a ship and saw my fellow countrymen smoking opium and gambling. A foreigner remarked, ‘These China men are no better than dogs!’ Upon hearing these words, I ran to my cabin and prayed in tears, ‘Oh God, I beseech you to save my fellowmen!’ I cast the gold key awarded to me for my Doctorate into the deep blue sea. I have made up my mind. Even if I have to die, I will preach the Gospel in China. I will die a willing death, if only my fellowmen be saved!” (p. 38)

(A typo is noted at p. 25: “Churchhas” should be “Church has”, I believe.)

Sung also demonstrated how his Chinese background influenced his Christian faith. For example, he wrote, “On 5 October, I headed for Seattle to take the ship back to China after bidding a tearful farewell to all my friends. I set sail on 11 October. It had been seven years since I left China on 11 February 1920 until I was born again on 11 February 1927. Exactly eight months after that, I left America. These seven years and eight months of trials and tribulations had a great impact on my ministry in the years to come.” (p. 37-38) The problem is Sung left China not on 11 February 1920 but on 10 March 1920 (p. 10). The former date was when Sung left his hometown for Shanghai before he embarked on the ship one month later which would bring him to the New World. Of course, Sung might be very deliberate in doing this, since 11 February would fit nicely to his narrative. Counting auspicious dates is a common practice among the Chinese and I believe Sung used this to craft his narrative. After all, “seven years” and “eight months” are both equally good numbers; “seven” for Hebrew tradition and “eight” for Chinese tradition.

(For another example, which I am not fully sure, Sung had a preference to call God as “Heavenly Father.” I am not sure whether this one was also borrowed from his Chinese background. Sung clearly had a fondness for the word “heaven.”)

It was followed then by seven chapters of the rest of Sung’s life in China. Honestly, I can’t put myself reading through the book until the end, as this is where the narrative becomes very repetitive. Basically we would go from revival to revival and rally to rally, as Sung moved all over the place in China and Southeast Asia. It does show, though, how Sung was very disciplined and consistent in his journaling, which is rare to see today. It also fits well with how Sung viewed testimony of believers. Sung wrote, “I felt strongly by asking the believers to testify, it was akin to fanning into flames everyone’s love for the Lord. This is a vital link to church revival.” (p. 70) Or, in another occasion, “I am fully convinced that these testimonies of believers are manifestations of the living Word.” (p. 72) Thus, his journals and notes become the way he testified his faith. His diary is his testimony or witness of God. It might be boring, but it shows signs of his consistency and persistence — in journaling, and in ministry.

What impressed me is that Sung remembered the names of people whom he met. He always mentioned their names in his entries. Of course, it also means that you can be confused at reading those names, not knowing who they are, but it perhaps shows how nobody is anonymous for Sung.

Sung also employed various nice analogies when he preached. For example, “I felt that the church is like the filament in a light bulb. There must be a vacuum for the filament to light up. It will not light up if there is air within. Abraham was like such a lamp.  The Lord had to ‘siphon out the air within the bulb’ so that he could shine. The church also must first empty itself of sin before it can shine for the Lord.” (p. 52)

In various places Sung showed the effect of his experience of liberalism in America. He was pretty ambivalent towards education and had a dualistic view of faith, which was perhaps influenced by the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. For example, in p. 66, he wrote, “I felt that the majority of church leaders were not interested in spiritual revival. Rather, they were urging ministers to boost literacy and educational level instead. I am not against these efforts, but we must not overdo works of secondary importance.” Or, elsewhere, “I pointed out that many preachers did not understand what it meant to be born again, or what it meant to be holy. The Liberals can destroy our faith where science and social service had failed to. The hospitals and schools set up in China by the Westerners were doomed for failure.” (p. 88)

I could go on to describe his other characteristics, like his almost pathological obsession and sensitivity for sin, his fervent belief in prayer and the Holy Spirit, his uttermost emphasis on revival and being born again (which, I think, could undermine the equally if not more important aspect of growth in Christian life), his criticisms of Western missionaries (which is related to his stance towards education, e.g., in p. 95-96, he wrote, “One reason for the lack of revival in the church was the Western missionaries who were stumbling blocks. They were having an easy time in China and knew only to build hospitals and schools with their money. They paid little attention to evangelism and revival work”), or his delicate balance in believing in miracles, but of course in the end one must read for himself what Sung really wrote in his own words.

All in all, this book would be a valuable resource to know John Sung and understand Chinese Christianity. Sung is a man of his times, yes, as he was clearly influenced by the surrounding historical and cultural background, but he is also a man of his own, whom we can’t pigeonhole so easily. He wants to be remembered as John the Baptist for China, preparing the way for the Lord in his homeland, and I think to some extent he has achieved that. Millions of Chinese Christians today, in mainland China and overseas, can trace back their conversions to Sung, directly and indirectly. It is a testimony of his work, which unfortunately ended quite abruptly after a mere 12 years of ministry. “On 11 August, I was too weak to hold anything in my hand. I felt disappointed and begged God to open the road ahead of me.” (p. 408) One week later, Sung returned to the Lord. Sung might have lacked good health during his life, but he certainly didn’t lack any enthusiasm in serving the Lord. And this diary symbolizes nicely his consistent and persistent work as one of the most influential Chinese preachers in the twentieth-century. It is a testimony of how the Lord works out his revival through Sung in China, which effects can be seen even until today. Sung, though, will not be content with such accolades. He will press on with his battle cry: Revival! Revival! Revival!

My other (related and not so related) posts on The Diary of John Sung:

1. Union (12/10/11)

2. Random patchwork (11/10/11)

3. It is still my intent (07/10/11)

4. No wish to tread this path (06/10/11)

5. Distinctively Chinese (05/10/11)


2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Diary of John Sung

  1. Lee

    John Sung address God as his “Heavenly Father” – that’s probably derived from the Chinese “Tian Fu”, which is common to Chinese translation. It was by no means an idiosyncrasy.

    Having read John Sung’s diaries, as well as a bit of his autobiography in Chinese – there are perhaps a few ways you could view John Sung.

    One is to believe his account is true, and see his life as one of unreserved dedication to God. John Sung, of course, would have changed over time as God continued to mould him – so perhaps he could be viewed as progressing through different ‘seasons’/’phases’ in life.

    Another is to seek alternative explanations for what John Sung related. You seem to suggest that John Sung’s priority was to be “remembered” – an appalling accusation which has no ground. For those who seek alternative explanations for John Sung’s various encounters with God, I would say that they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God (Mark 12:24).

  2. Wendy Low

    one can only truly benefit from this reading is not to view John’s life as a whole but at that moment of how he felt.By not judging him but understand how a young missionary trust in God and allowing oneself to be change by God’s words daily.willingness to allow God to reveal his daily sin and be repented took a lot of courage for some who was so successful in his career.we will achieve great revival if we follow what he did by spending many hours in reading the bible and in prayer.Revival begins with oneself before we can minister to others.How true and honest when John admitted he lacked God power when he was not upright before God.I’m am inspire by God’s grace in keeping all his diary intact for a good purpose.i’m challenge to do God’s work with a humble spirit just like John trusting in Jesus fully and live by faith despite John experienced extreme physical pain. He never blame God till the end.Such a great legacy he has left us in south east asia.


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