The “Back to Jerusalem” movement can be traced back to a vision for evangelism which God gave to several different indigenous Chinese Christian mission movements in the 1940s. It has been claimed that this vision was also widely accepted among the earlier Jesus Family, a communal Christian movement started in Shandong province. However, I can find no evidence for this in the limited Chinese and English documentation of this fascinating group.
In 1949, soon after World War II, Phyllis Thompson, a China Inland Mission (CIM) worker stationed in Chongqing (Chungking) wrote:
The thing that has impressed me most has been the strange, unaccountable urge of a number of different Chinese groups of Christians to press forward in faith, taking the Gospel towards the west. I know of at least five different groups, quite unconnected with each other who have left their homes in east China and gone forth leaving practically everything behind them to the west. Some are in Sikang, some in Kansu, some right away in the great north-western province of Sinkiang or Chinese Turkestan. It seems like a movement of the Spirit which is irresistible. The striking thing is that they are disconnected, and in most cases seem to know nothing about each other. Yet all are convinced that the Lord is sending them to the western borders to preach the Gospel, and they are going with a strong sense of urgency of the shortness of the time, and the imminence of the Lord’s return.
This is important evidence of the birth of this movement. It came at a time of social and political turmoil during the Japanese occupation of much of China. Spiritually, it seems to have galvanised Chinese evangelists with a strong desire to emulate the pioneer work of the China Inland Mission among Muslims and minority peoples.
In 1941, the CIM started the new NorthWest Bible Institute in Fengxiang, Shaanxi province. Rev. James Hudson Taylor (grandson of the founder of the CIM) was the principal and Rev. Mark Ma, from Henan, became the vice-principal. Pastor Ma wrote:
On the evening of November 25, 1942 while in prayer the Lord said to me: “The door to Sinkiang is already opened. Enter and preach the Gospel.” When this voice reached me I was trembling and fearful and most unwilling to obey, because I did not recall a single time in the past when I had prayed for Sinkiang; moreover it was a place to which I had no desire to go. Therefore I merely privately prayed about this matter not even telling my wife.
After exactly five months of prayer, on Easter morning 25 April 1943 when two fellow workers and I were praying together on the bank of the Wei River, I told them of my call to Sinkiang and one of the fellow workers said that 10 years before she had received a similar call. When I returned to the school I learnt that on that same Easter Sunday at the sunrise service eight students had also been burdened for Sinkiang. It was with joy that I gathered them all together and we planned a regular prayer meeting. On the evening of May 4th there were 23 present, including members of the faculty and students. On May 11th we received the first offering amounting to $50.
On the morning of May 23, as Ma fasted and prayed, he believed God spoke to him further.
I not only want you (the Chinese church) to assume responsibility for taking the Gospel to Sinkiang but I want you to bring to completion the commission to preach the Gospel to all the world. Since Pentecost the gospel has spread for the greater part in a westward direction: from Jerusalem to Antioch to all Europe; from Europe to America and then the East; from the Southeast of China to the Northwest; until today from Kansu on westward it can be said there is no firmly established church. You may go westward from Kansu preaching the Gospel all the way back to Jerusalem, causing the light of the gospel to complete the circle around this dark world. I want to manifest my power through those who of themselves have no power. I have kept for the Chinese church a portion of inheritance, otherwise when I return will you not be too poor?
The same evening I reported the above revelation to our prayer group. The name Pien Chuan Fu yin Tuan was accepted by the whole group.
It is interesting to note that the Chinese name means simply “The Preach Everywhere Gospel Band.” It was the CIM missionaries who dubbed the movement “Back to Jerusalem Evangelistic Band.” Pastor Ma, at the same meeting, said he believed God was calling them not only to the outlying provinces of China but beyond to seven nationsTibet, Afghanistan, Iran, Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Palestine.
The vision was thus quite specific and centered on reaching the Muslims and the Jewsno mention of Buddhists or Hindus. Its ethos was strongly premillenial with a fervent expectation of Christ’s return and the need to preach the gospel urgently to the unsaved. In the tradition of the CIM, it was strongly a “faith mission,” birthed in fervent prayer and looking to God for every supply. Its constitution stated firmly: “We look to the Lord alone for all financial supplies.” In this it seems to differ widely with some modern expressions of the BTJ movement which blatantly appeal for funds at every possibility.
Another early pioneer was Simon Zhao. He was born in 1918 and attended the Dongguan American Presbyterian church in Shenyang. He joined a prayer group which met in the church tower. One snowy night, he brought a large map with him and alone in the vast silence laid it down and prayed. He was drawn to Xinjiang with its strange Uygur place names. The more he prayed the more Xinjiang imprinted itself on his mind. Later he married, and he and his wife both went to study at Taidong Seminary in Nanjing. There he met two women who also had a call to go to Xinjiang. In 1949, all headed to the northwest, reaching Hami where they joined members of the North West Evangelization band who had arrived there a year or two earlier. Eager to plant the gospel on virgin soil, he headed to Khotan (Hetian), a remote oasis in the far south of Xinjiang, in the winter of 1949. However, they were forced to move west to Kashgar where the band had set up a preaching station. They arrived to a chaotic situation and were soon arrested. Simon was placed in prison as were other members of the Band from Hami and Kashgar. From 1954 until 1981 he toiled in terrible conditions in a labor camp, miraculously surviving one instance of brutality when he was stripped and forced to stand for hours in the freezing cold. Some of the other early pioneers to Xinjiang died as martyrs in captivity.
After his release, he came across other believers in the Kashgar area in 1988, and in 1995 he travelled to Henan where he shared his vision of “Back to Jerusalem” with some rural house church leaders. He died peacefully in Henan on December 3, 2001, but his vision has since spread to many Christians across China, mainly in rural house church circles but even to some Three-Self pastors and Bible colleges.
In Xinjiang itself, the wife of one of the other early pioneers, Mecca Zhao, still maintains a quiet witness on the outskirts of Kashgar. In human terms, they have seen few if any converts among the Muslims. Strong pressure from the local Islamic community, and also from the communist authorities who forbid Christian outreach by the numerous Han Christian community to their Uygur neighbors, means that so far only a few individual Uygurs have been saved. Some Han evangelists have moved to Xinjiang but have found learning the language and adapting to the local culture daunting. Irresponsible claims overseas of 100,000 Chinese evangelists poised to take the Islamic world by storm have tarnished the original vision. However, there is plenty of evidence that there are many Chinese Christians praying fervently to become seriously involved in cross-cultural missionfirst within China’s borders where some have already taken the gospel to Xijiang, Tibet and Inner Mongoliaand then further afield. Perhaps a few hundred are already in some kind of preparatory training.
Those I have met in China who are most serious about mission, adamantly reject the naive triumphalism that has gained adverse publicity overseas and drawn the attention of both the Chinese government and certain Muslim governments. They eschew publicity, and in striking contrast to publicists overseas, insist that God will provide the necessary funding from Chinese Christians within China. I believe they are the authentic successors to the original pioneers, and their quiet work will bear ultimate spiritual fruit.