The Protestant Missions — March 17, 2011 at 8:58 am

The Rev. A.M. Knapp and the American Unitarian Association in Japan!


The  arrival of Unitarianism in Japan

Fukuzawa Yukichi was a Japanese author, writer, teacher, translator, entrepreneur and political theorist who founded Keio University. His ideas about government and social institutions made a lasting impression on a rapidly changing Japan during the Meiji Era. He is regarded as one of the founders of modern Japan.

It was in part owing to the suggestions of Japanese who, while abroad, had come in contact with Unitarianism, that the American Unitarian Association decided to send Rev. A. M. Knapp to Japan as a representative of its faith. Reaching Japan in 1887, he preferred not to be called a missionary but an envoy or ambassador that had come to “express the sympathy of the Unitarians of America for progressive religious movements in Japan, and give all necessary information to the leaders of religious thought and action in that country.”

He said:

“The errand of Unitarianism in Japan is based upon the now familiar idea of the ‘sympathy of religions.’ With the conviction that we are messengers of distinctive and valuable truths which have not here been emphasized, and that in return there is much in your faith and life which to our harm we have not emphasized, receive us not as theological propagandists but as messengers of the new gospel of human brotherhood in the religious life of mankind.”


What has already been said of the views expressed by Mr. Fukuzawa and other writer’s shows that many persons were prepared to regard with favor a form of Christianity that minimized supernatural elements. Even some of the Buddhists joined in the welcome, though one reason for this may be found in the remark of a catechism published by the Shin sect: Unitarianism will not be productive of any positive benefit; but as it will be negatively useful in neutralizing the evil effects of Christianity, we approve the spread of that religion for the sake of the country —nay, for the sake of our Shin sect.” Mr. Knapp by interviews with influential men, by lectures, and by the use of the press, vigorously propagated his views. He was severely critical of the work and methods of other missionaries; so much so that a member of the liberal German Evangelical

Protestant Mission, who to a considerable extent was in sympathy with Unitarian doctrines, wrote:

“I do not understand how it is that the representative of the American Unitarians, who has been residing in Tokyo for a year, takes an attitude apparently more friendly to Buddhists than to Christians. . . . I too, had a time at my study-table at home when I thought that a fundamental change of methods of missions was desirable. But now I do not hesitate to confess that I do not know how missions in Japan, in particular Protestant missions, could labor more wisely or more in accordance with their aim.


Mr. Knapp himself was very much elated at the promising opening of his work. Returning in 1889 to America to report progress, he said at the annual meeting; of the Unitarian Association that its messenger might “fairly claim that his work in its results during the past year has exceeded a hundred-fold the average of the orthodox worker.” This success, however, did not consist in making converts, a work that he disclaimed any desire to undertake, but in the fact that ”one in a thousand of the Japanese had heard that there is such a thing as Unitarianism, and one in one hundred thousand understands what it is, and is more or less interested in its success.” Mr. Knapp soon went again to Japan; this time accompanied by Rev. Clay MacCauley, D.D., as a colleague, and by three teachers who had been appointed to positions m Mr. Fukuzawa’s school.

Though these teachers disclaimed any connection with the Unitarian Mission, they sympathized with its work, and in various ways gave it their aid. In 1890 a Unitarian church was established in Tokyo, and the publication of a monthly magazine begun. The impression the movement made upon the Japanese is shown by an article written for the Unitarian Review of Boston, by Mr. Kishimoto Nobuta, a Kumi-ai Christian of liberal tendencies. He wrote:

“The first impression we have received is that Unitarianism has a strong sectarian spirit. This we anticipated to some extent; and this anticipation has been confirmed by the strange choice of a challenging title. The Unitarian, for its organ-magazine, and by the hostile attitude which articles contained in this magazine show towards the other sects of Christianity. The second impression is that Unitarianism is a philosophy rather than a religion. The Unitarian declares that Unitarianism is a positive religion; but among its advocates are found either those who are indifferent towards any religion or those purely agnostic or atheistic Among them some of the noted Buddhist monks are also found. Strange to say, the Unitarianism of Japan shows a strong sympathy towards Buddhism, while it shows a strong hostile feeling towards its brother sects of Christianity. These facts have led our people to conclude that Unitarianism (at least, the Unitarianism of Japan,) cannot be a religion and that, if it can be a religion, it will be a religion of philosophers.”


To this article the editor appended a note, saying of a prominent Unitarian clergyman:

“Mr. Williams, who has recently returned from a visit to Japan, writes us that Unitarianism is hostile to Orthodox theology, and that this has given our Japanese brother a false impression; that it sympathizes with Buddhism no more than with Confucianism. But, as its policy is to recognize spiritual truth in all these religions, and to meet their adherents in a spirit of courtesy and free inquiry, this attitude has been naturally misunderstood by those to whom such a policy implies a distrust of Christianity.”


Near the close of 1890, Mr. Knapp, on account of poor health, left Japan. The next year a school for teaching liberal theology grew out of courses of lectures on religious, ethical, and social topics. Gradually the teachers employed in Mr. Fukuzawa’s school and others who had come out to the Mission withdrew, so that Dr. MacCauley was left alone.

See here for the American Unitarian Association history

Here is the link for Fukuzawa Yukichi

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