Time magazine 'Person of the Year': Past winners and their lesser known Christian faith

Francis I isn't the first Pope to be listed as Time Magazine's "Person of the Year". That would be John XXIII who received the honour in 1962, but he in turn was neither the first Catholic, nor the first Christian. Being an American based publication, and given that Christianity is the single largest religion in the world, it's hardly surprising that the vast majority of the more than 90 people nominated over the last 86 years are associated with the faith in some way. However, there are several you might not expect. Here are five winners of 'Person of the Year' whose Christian leanings are not so talked about.

Chiang Kai-shek

Chiang Kai-shek - 1937
The exact account of the conversion of the leader of China's Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang, or KMT) is unclear. Some view it as a political move, as the promise of eventual conversion enabled him to marry Soong May-ling, a Christian and the sister-in-law of Sun Yat-Sen, the provisional president of the Republic of China. Sun had died in 1925, and Chiang wanted to close the power vacuum quickly. Soong's mother however was not accepting of Chiang until he had not only divorced his previous wife and concubines, and he promised to be baptised at a later date.

Shortly after his marriage the Nationalist Information Bureau stressed that Chiang was not a Christian. However, he was indeed baptised at the Allen Memorial Church, which had been founded in Shanghai by American missionaries belonging to the Southern Methodist Church.

One account, recorded by British evangelist Leonard Ravenhill, tells the story of Chiang's meeting with a missionary doctor after the destruction of a city during the civil war. The doctor asked that he be allowed to tend to the KMT's soldiers as his hospital had been destroyed by the KMT and he had no other work to do. Dumbfounded, Chiang agreed and when he informed his wife of this, she expressed little surprise since this doctor was merely observing his religion. After careful thought, Chiang supposedly said: "If that is what that foreign devil's religion is, then I, too, will become a Christian."

This then led to an amazing moment of witness. When Chiang was kidnapped by Communist forces, his wife learned of his location and rather than seeking to liberate him, she instead came to join him in his captivity. They studied the Bible together, causing worry to the general who was imprisoning them. After he demanded to know what their secret whispering meetings were about, he was discovered to be warmly welcomed, and after having many of his questions answered, the general too became a Christian.

No one can be certain to what extent Chiang was Christian in anything other than name, but a piece by an author identified only as "C.E." in the Sydney Morning Herald of Saturday 10 January 1931 makes the interesting observation: "Whatever the motive [of his conversion], there is no questioning the fact that General Chiang's decision to join a Christian church founded by foreign missionaries was a courageous action, particularly in view of the widespread prevalence of anti-Christian and anti-religious propaganda, which exists in the Kuomintang and National Government to such an extent that all mission schools have been forced in recent months either to delete their religious courses from the curriculum or to place the courses on the voluntary lists."

The column ends: "According to Mr Yui, General Chiang returned to Nanking at the conclusion of the recent civil war in a deeply religious frame of mind, due largely to the heavy losses suffered by his troops in the campaign."

John Foster Dulles - 1954
The man who the Washington DC airport was named after was not only the US Secretary of State under President Eisenhower, and an architect of the South East Asian Treaty Organisation, he was also the father of the first American priest to be directly appointed as a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church.

His early involvement in US politics was as a major player in the group who designed the Dawes plan to help reconstruct Germany and Europe more widely after the First World War. The war had convinced him of the virtues of isolationism (he preferred the US to engage diplomatically, supporting moves to make it a part of the League of Nations), and he became a significant figure in the religious peace movement. This almost convinced him to remain in Germany even after the Nazis halted all repayments of international private debt in 1935, but his brother, a junior partner in the firm they belonged to, convinced him of the scale of the problem.

Dulles was an important figure of the Cold War, but before the deeper fears of nuclear mutually assured destruction took hold, he was a staunch opponent of the further development of atomic weapons, and argued that all nuclear energy should become property of a global body such as the UN. In the immediate aftermath of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he is quoted as saying: "If we, as a professedly Christian nation, feel morally free to use atomic energy in that way, men elsewhere will accept that verdict. Atomic weapons will be looked upon as a normal part of the arsenal of war and the stage will be set for the sudden and final destruction of mankind."

(AP)Cardinal Josef Mindszenty, Archbishop of Budapest and primate of Hungary, is shown with his liberators outside his residence on October 31, 1956 in Budapest, after his release.

The Hungarian Freedom Fighter - 1956
In 1956 Hungary was in the grip of perhaps the most repressive of Europe's communist dictatorships under Mátyás Rákosi, and one of the groups he most fervently rooted out as his enemy was the Church. Religious schools were placed under governmental control, and religious leaders were 'replaced' by those who pledged loyalty to the state. In response to this, and many other of the repressive policies implemented by Rákosi, protesters rose up in a anger and removed a bronze statue of Stalin that had been erected on the site of a church – the church had in fact been demolished to make way for the monument.

József Mindszenty, the leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary, was arrested on 26th December 1948 and was put forward on a show trial in 1949. He was forced to confess, amongst other things, that he planned to steal the Hungarian Crown Jewels, and that he wanted to instigate a third world war that he hoped America would win, thereby giving him political power in Hungary. Pope Pius XII excommunicated all those involved with the prosecution of Mindszenty. Seven years later, revolutionaries freed the Cardinal, and upon his return to Budapest, he made several radio broadcasts praising the anti-communists and the insurgency's achievements.

Charles Hard Townes - 1960
This award was not given to Townes specifically. He was one of several people given the accolade in 1960, as part of Time Magazine honouring "US Scientists". His particular accomplishment was the development of the Maser, which is essentially the microwave application of the Laser. Whereas Laser is an acronym that means "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation", a Maser simply replaces the word 'Light' with 'Microwave'. His work helped pioneer the field of radio astronomy, and also enabled such fantastic creations as the Hubble and Kepler Space Telescopes to make their fantastic observations of distant planets and galaxies.

Townes was a member of the United Church of Christ, a denomination in the Protestant Reformed tradition, and in a speech given at Harvard Science Centre in 2005, he said that his understanding was that science and religion were allies in the common cause of achieving a better understanding of the universe.

"I look at science and religion as quite parallel, much more similar than most people think and that in the long run, they must converge," he said as part of a 40-minute talk. He also expressed a view of the universe being 'fine-tuned' for life.

"Scientists, especially physicists, recognise that this is a very special world. Things have to be almost exactly as they are in order for us to exist," Townes said. "It's a fantastically specialised universe, but how in the world did it happen?"

(Photo: World Economic Forum)Frederik Williem de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shake hands at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum held in Davos in January 1992

FW de Klerk - 1993
Frederik Willem de Klerk was given the award of "Person of the Year" along with Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, and Yitzhak Rabin. Together, they were labelled as "The Peacemakers" and were praised for the efforts they all made in bringing together their respective divided communities. Though he was an important part of the Apartheid government, he came from a portion of his own party less influenced by the military and what were known as the 'security interests'. His faith as part of the Dutch Reform Church ultimately caused him to reject the theological and political justifications that upheld the Apartheid system. Together with Nelson Mandela, he helped create the democratic South Africa that exists today.

The website of the Santa Clara Jesuit University displays his reflections on Working Towards Peace: "The greatest peace, I believe, is the peace which we derive from our faith in God Almighty; from certainty about our relationship with our Creator. Crises might beset us, battles might rage about us - but if we have faith and the certainty it brings, we will enjoy peace - the peace that surpasses all understanding."

When talking about the handover of power to Nelson Mandela, he said: "It was a day of joy. It was a day of liberation - not only for black South Africans but also for us white South Africans. Suddenly, the burden of three hundred and fifty years had been lifted from our shoulders. For the first time we could greet all our countrymen without guilt or fear as equals and as fellow South Africans. When I awoke that morning I was still the president of South Africa. When I went to bed the mantle had passed from me to Nelson Mandela. Few heads of government could ever have laid aside their high office with a greater sense of accomplishment, regardless of the uncertainties of the future."