In 1853, revolutionaries led by the peasant Hong Xiuquan captured the city of Nanjing, in the Chinese province of Jiangsu. The seizure of this major city followed a string of unlikely conquests made by the group, who called their new empire the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace. From 1851 until 1864, this “Taiping” (Great Peace) movement took control of a region of China inhabited by 30 million people. In the massive wars they waged against the ruling Qing dynasty, more than 20 million people died.
Stripped of its context, the Taiping movement is baffling. How did a handful of peasants from southern China manage to drum up a movement that would challenge the Qing Empire and change the face of China, when other rebellions for decades had failed?
The answer lies with the founder of the new movement. In 1837, Hong Xiuquan had a series of visions. In these visions he was a royal in a heavenly kingdom, being carried toward a palace. Before he entered, he was laid in a bed, his heart was removed and a new, pure heart was put in its place. He was brought to meet a wise old man with a long beard; Hong realized this was his true father. His heavenly father lamented the corruption and wickedness he saw in the world (China). Feeling despair, Hong begged permission to descend from heaven to rid the world of demons. He was sent down to earth with his wise elder brother.
Hong began to tell his friends and neighbors about his vision. One of them suggested that he read a pamphlet he had been given a few years earlier. In the 1820s, Protestant missionaries from the United States and Britain had begun to translate Bibles and to pass out tracts to the Chinese in the port cities where they were allowed. One of these pamphlets had fallen into Hong’s hands, although he had not read it at the time of his visions. The tract spoke of a Heavenly Father who had sent his son, Jesus, down from heaven into the world to redeem it. It spoke of commandments to shun idols and to worship the one true God.
To Hong this changed the world. He realized the meaning of his visions: he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. The one true God had given him the charge to rid China of idols and demons. Hong was baptized and set out preaching, destroying idols, and prophesying. Eventually he would raise an army that would set out to topple the blaspheming emperor in order to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, ushering in a reign of great peace, free from the troubles that plagued 19th century China.
It was only recently that I heard of the Taiping Rebellion, this strange intersection of Christianity and Chinese civilization. The story was particularly interesting to me–as a Mormon I do not find it surprising that a visionary 19th century prophet could change the course of history.
The Taiping Rebellion is an example of the unique power of religion. The transcendent reaches beyond humanity and for that reason has a tendency to change humanity. It does not take much study to see movements of theology beneath the history of civilizations. As many modern secularists point out, religion inspired many of the famous and destructive wars of the past. However, it was also the force for abolition in the 19th century, the sponsor of science in the Islamic Golden Age and in the form of Confucianism and Taoism, the protector of harmonious family values throughout Chinese history. Even Taiping Christianity, though clearly destructive, declared the equality of women, freed slaves, abolished foot-binding and proscribed alcohol and other drugs.
We can be sure that religion will be the motive for good and evil deeds in the future. As to what determines which effect a religious movement will have on the world, I cannot fairly comment, although I have ideas. What is certain is that religion is not going away, and certainly not for the reasons the new atheists would suggest. It is more than a set of metaphysical beliefs, or a list of moral imperatives, or a social group. It is the heritage of humanity, a response to the transcendent and a spring of peace in the soul. It will likely be the means of healing some of the current challenges of the modern world; the decoupling of marriage and family, new addictions in a world of instant gratification, and the alienation that seems to follow fundamentalist individualism. Because of religion there continues to be great cause for hope for a society that is more virtuous, for the kind of heavenly kingdom imagined by Hong Xiuquan.