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China and the True Jesus

A Book Review


China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church by Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye. Published by Oxford University Press; 1st Edition, 2020, 408 pages. ISBN-10: 0197507344; ISBN-13: 978-0197507346. Paperback available on Amazon.

When I saw the new book China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church by Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye I was immediately curious. After three decades in China, I had never come across this group before and had never met anyone in China who was part of one of their fellowships. I picked up the book to see what I could learn and was not disappointed.  I have a whole new set of questions to ponder.

China is a great place for curious people. There is always more to learn about the history, culture, language, and people. Any discussion of the church in China is always tied to the history of Christianity in China. In the West the history of the emergence and growth China’s indigenous churches is not well known. The most familiar are the Little Flock churches associated with Watchman Nee. However, there were other contemporary groups of churches emerging about the same time including the Jesus Family and the True Jesus Church.

The True Jesus Church was founded in Beijing in 1917. By 1949 it was one of the largest indigenous groups of churches in China (estimated 120,000 members in 700 churches).1 This is a significant size given that the total Protestant church size in 1949 is estimated at about one million baptized believers.2 By 1949 the church had also begun to expand outside of China. Today the church is headquartered in the USA with a major center in Taiwan and has 1.5 million members in 65 countries.3

The author, Dr. Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, grew up in California as a fourth generation Chinese-Japanese American. After serving in a Mormon mission in Taiwan, she finished her undergraduate studies in East Asian Studies at Harvard University and went on to complete a PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard in 2011. Her 626 page PhD dissertation “Miraculous Mundane: The True Jesus Church and Chinese Christianity in the Twentieth Century” was the result of living in China and being an affiliate of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences from 2009–2010. She is currently a senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Auckland.

Inouye describes her work as: “My major research field is the history of Christianity in China. I am particularly interested in the intersection of miraculous discourse with global modernity.”4 Her areas of research interest include the social and cultural history of modern China, charismatic global Christianity, and women and religion.

In this book the author combines the best of academic rigor and analysis with extensive field research and personal anecdotes to give a multi-faceted picture of the origins and development of the True Jesus Church. She describes her efforts as, “My overall project is to understand how charismatic claims inspire human organization and hold communities together” (p. 4). Throughout the book there is an exploration of various aspects of the relationship between charisma and organization.

The author traces the origins of the True Jesus Church starting from the Taiping Rebellion in 1864. She compares five individuals from the head of the Taiping Rebellion, a Qing dynasty mandarin, London Missionary Society missionaries in Beijing, and the founder of the True Jesus Church Wei En-bo (魏恩波). Wei En-bo was converted in a London Missionary Church in Beijing in 1907 and later founded the True Jesus Church in 1917. Surprisingly, despite Wei’s untimely death in 1919 and a failed prophecy about the end of the world for 1921–1922, the True Jesus Church continued to grow and develop across China.

After introducing us to the context and circumstances of the True Jesus Church founding, Inouye outlines the early development of the True Jesus Church up to 1949 through two lenses—one biographical and one historical.

The first lens focuses on one individual, Deaconess Fu, and the three phases of her life. Her first phase was as a dutiful Confucian daughter-in-law. The second phase was as a nurse in a missionary hospital. The third phase was as a member of the True Jesus Church during which she went on to plant new churches in Shaanxi Province. Through these three phases the author explores the role of women in Chinese society in the early 1900s and how Christianity influenced their options and opportunities. Within the True Jesus Church women played an important role in shaping the church’s authoritative networks and cultural structures. Women were active in the vibrant print publications of the church and well represented in the organization and church hierarchies.

The second lens focused on the interaction of the True Jesus Church with governments in China from 1932–1949. These included the Nationalist government, the invading Japanese government, and the Communist government. The headquarters of the church at the start of this time was in Shanghai. The church headquarters was damaged in early 1932 when the Japanese troops entered Shanghai. At this time the headquarters was destroyed and along with it much of the early church’s documents and its main printing press. Later during the war, the headquarters moved to Chongqing and then to Nanjing in 1947.

The author goes on to devote two chapters to the time period after 1949 up to 1978 and two chapters to the time period from 1978–2012.

The chapter for the first decade of the People’s Republic of China (1949–1958) traces the integration of the True Jesus Church into the newly formed Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). Early in the development of the TSPM, the True Jesus Church leadership thought the church would avoid problems since it was truly self-led, self-financed, and self-propagating. They considered themselves exempt from charges of imperialism that had been directed at many other foreign-founded Christian churches. Unfortunately, these characteristics did not spare the True Jesus Church and its leaders from the upheavals during the early organization of the TSPM.

The church was also tainted by its strong connections to the Nationalist government before 1949. The church leader Isaac Wei was arrested in 1951 and accused of various counter-revolutionary activities over the next two years. How and when he died is unknown. His successor Li Zhengcheng was also arrested in 1958 for counterrevolutionary crimes and was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1960. The True Jesus Church was forced to conform its discourse, publications, and even theological beliefs to the current political and ideological norms. Later the True Jesus Church was suppressed during the Anti-Rightist Campaigns of 1958 and its formal institutions ceased to function.

The second chapter explores how the True Jesus Church survived at the grassroots level through the 1960s and 1970s including the Cultural Revolution period. The author attributes their survival to key aspects of the church’s practice and organization:

The ingredient that allowed the True Jesus Church to survive while numerous other churches perished was charismatic practice. The mode of Christianity did not depend on an intact ecclesiastical hierarchy, regular Sabbath meetings, a chapel, or a large group. At the same time, it was inherently collective, nourishing church networks in a time of profound community destruction. (p. 224)

She also comments on the role of women:  

Because of the True Jesus Church’s long-standing tradition of appointing women as deaconesses and preachers, these older women often had leadership experience, charismatic authority, religious expertise, and family seniority; they commanded respect in the local community. In a time when official, male-dominated ecclesiastical hierarchies had failed, informal, interpersonal networks held together by women succeeded. (p. 224)

In the next two chapters the author traces the re-emergence of the True Jesus Church meetings, activities, and organization as China began to open up and allow more organized religious activities. The author traces the resurgence of the True Jesus Church in Fujian Province to heavenly visions by Deaconess Wang that were circulated in Fujian during the mid-1970s. Examples are given of activities both within and without the TSPM structures as the True Jesus Churches have re-established their organization and exclusivist stances.

In the final chapter the author reflects on her experiences at True Jesus Church baptism and communion services she attended. She identifies the experiences of the miraculous and how church members see the Holy Spirit at work in their lives as creating significant individual, social, and cultural realities and impact. As a “truth-claiming organization” (p. 280) the True Jesus Church, like many Christian churches, presents ideological challenges to the Party and State.

Reading this book exposed me to another facet of how the gospel has impacted Chinese society and history. Some of the experiences recorded in this book are instructive for current challenges facing Christian churches, leaders, and believers in China. Any reader interested in Chinese church history of the last 100 years will find this book an interesting and enlightening addition to their understanding of the complexity and varied streams of God’s work in China.

Endnotes

  1. See “True Jesus Church,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Jesus_Church accessed August 11, 2021.
  2. See “Christianity in China,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_China for estimate and original reference, accessed August 11, 2021.
  3. See “True Jesus Church,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Jesus_Church and “History,” True Jesus Church, https://tjc.org/history/, accessed August 11, 2021.
  4. See “My name is Melissa Inouye,” Global Mormon Studies, https://www.globalmormonstudies.org/profile-melissa-inouye/ accessed August 11, 2021.
Image credit: A friend of ChinaSource.

Peter Bryant

Over the last 30 years Peter Bryant (pseudonym) has had the chance to visit, to live for extended periods of time, and to travel to almost all of China’s provinces. As a Christian business person he has met Chinese from all walks of life. He has a particular interest in …View Full Bio


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