A baptism stirs memories, 135 years afterwards

Published September 5, 2015

By D. G. Martin

by D. G. Martin, One on One, September 4, 2015.

When would a baptism in a small church in Wilmington be so important that it gets reportedin the newspapers?

It happened in 1880 at Fifth Street Methodist Church and again at the same church 135 years later on August 30, 2015.

Here is the report from the November 7, 1880, Wilmington Star announcing an event that would ultimately change the course of Chinese history:

“Fifth Street Methodist Church: This morning the ordinance of Baptism will be administered at this church. A Chinese convert will be one of the subjects of the solemn right [sic], being probably the first ‘Celestial’ that has ever submitted to the ordinance of Baptism in North Carolina. The pastor, Rev. T. Page Ricaud, will officiate.”

That Celestial, as Americans then referred to Chinese people, was Charlie Soong, a teenager, whose North Carolina Methodist sponsors arranged for his education and return to China as a missionary. Back in China, he became one of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful business and political insiders. One of his daughters married Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Chinese republic. Another, May-ling, married Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. Madam Chiang died in 2003 at age 105. One son, T.V. Soong, represented China at the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. After the Communist takeover of China, he moved to the U.S. and became a highly successful banker. The Soong family became so important to China that it is called the Soong Dynasty.

So, that baptism back in 1880 turned out to be even more important than the short note in the Wilmington Star.

Now, what about the news account of the 2015 baptism, 135 years later?

Here is what Ben Steelman wrote in the Friday, August 28, Wilmington Star-News: “On Sunday, Soong's great-grandson, will be baptized at what is now Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church, from the same font where his great-grandfather was baptized.”

Anytime an adult comes to a place he had never been before to be baptized in the same church where his great-grandfather received the sacrament, there should be a news report. But, when I read this one, I asked, “Why?” Why did the great-grandson choose to follow his great-grandfather’s pathway?

At the recent service, after his baptism, the great-grandson, Michael Feng, explained. Feng and his wife, Winnie, have been long-time, active participants at The Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest, a historic church in New York City at Fifth Avenue and 90th Street.

“It was the church of my grandfather, T.V. Soong, where Winnie and I were married and raised our two children. I had just never gotten around to being baptized. I guess my parents were too busy when I was young. Winnie has been after me for a long time to be baptized. And when we were planning a trip to North Carolina for a wedding, we decided this would be a wonderful time and place for my baptism.”

He explained to the congregation at Fifth Avenue Church that his family remained grateful to the North Carolinians who provided his great-grandfather the educational, spiritual, and financial resources that made the difference for Charlie Soong. “He gave these three resources to his children and our family.”

After expressing his gratitude to the church for its contribution, he reported the Chinese government’s television network’s plans to air a series of 35 hour-long programs about Charlie Soong and his role in building the modern China. On the other hand, the government continues to put pressure on the 65-70 million Christians in China, which, he said, should concern American Christians.

More than a news story, Feng’s decision to follow his great-grandfather’s steps back to North Carolina is a time for celebration and reflection.



A short UNC-TV video tells the “Charlie Soong in Wilmington” story at: