Early Chinese Christians in Maine (1870-1918)

By Gary Libby from the March 2008 CAFAM Newsletter

The earliest known reference to a Chinese person’s membership in a Maine church appeared in the Portland Press on December 26, 1870. It reported that Ar Tee Lam had joined the Congress Square Sunday School on Christmas Day and promised “to become a learner and good exemplar of the Christian religion.” (Mr. Lam’s interest may have been prompted by his recent guilty plea to a charge of bootlegging which resulted in a $50 fine.)

First Baptist Church Sunday school picnic ca. 1920. Courtesy Maine Historical Society.

First Baptist Church Sunday school picnic ca. 1920. Courtesy Maine Historical Society.

Five years later at Calais, the East Maine Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church admitted Zing Neng Chick and five other Chinese men to full communion and elected them to Elders Orders. They were missionaries stationed in China.

About 1880 Mrs. H. F. Crocker, who was active in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as well as the Second Parish Church in Portland, gathered together a few local laundrymen into the church’s Sunday school. By 1885 the class had grown to nineteen.

Thereafter the church took an active interest in Portland’s Chinese. Many of them used their involvement to learn English and socialize with white society. By 1888 the church had established a separate Sunday school for its twenty-four Chinese. Average attendance was about fifteen. Their contributions of between $30 and $40 a year, went toward supporting a theological school in China. The Second Parish organized its Chinese Sunday school so that each member had his own individual teacher, mostly women.

The meetings began with a hymn reading, with the teachers distinctly pronouncing each word. Then, to organ accompaniment, all sang another hymn which had been translated into Chinese and written down both in Chinese characters and phonetically for the teachers. A simple catechism followed, and then the Lord’s Prayer. Then the class broke down into individual sessions. The teachers used slates and bi-lingual illustrated primers to teach English. The students often became quite attached to their teachers and frequently brought them small gifts and visited them at their homes. A communion table purchased by the students in 1887, is still in use today.

Sometime in the 1890s, this Sunday school seems to have stopped meeting. In 1902, laundryman Frank Chin Guey and a friend approached First Baptist church and asked to be taught the Bible and English. At the church’s Sunday school they were provided with an instructor. Frank Guey persisted in his studies, eventually becoming a member of the church. As interest grew, the church established a separate Chinese Sunday school which had about thirty-five members in July 1913.

In 1913, the Sunday school hosted a large banquet for Mr. Guey, seeing him off to China, where he intended to visit family and do missionary work. In later years there were similar gatherings. In 1916 about 200 people attended a banquet in the vestry which was hung with the flags of the Chinese Republic and the United States. There was also an annual summer picnic, featuring sports, games, lobster, and Chinese food.

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The Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine provides forums and outreach that promote cultural interchanges between the US and China.

Some rights reserved. Please share content responsibly. Banner image: Peonies, Yun Shouping (1633–1690), Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons. Produced by The Compass LLC.