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Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Maoist China1

  • Joseph Tse-Hei Lee

Extract

The experience of Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng) and the Christian Assembly (Jidutu juhuichu or Jidutu juhuisuo) in Mainland China after the Communist Revolution of 1949 reveals the complexity of church and state relations in the early 1950s. Widely known in the West as the Little Flock (Xiaoqun), the Christian Assembly, founded by Watchman Nee, was one of the fastest growing native Protestant movements in China during the early twentieth century. It was not created by a foreign missionary enterprise. Nor was it based on the Anglo-American Protestant denominational model. And its rapid development fitted well with an indigenous development called the Three-Self Movement, in which Chinese Christians created self-supporting, selfgoverning, and self-propagating churches. But it did not share the highly politicized anti-imperialist rhetoric of another Three-Self Movement, the Communist-initiated “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” (sanzi aiguo yundong): self-rule autonomous from foreign missionary and imperialist control, financial self-support without foreign donations, and self-preaching independent of any Christian missionary influences. As the overarching organization of the one-party state, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement sought to ensure that all Chinese Protestant congregations would submit to the socialist ideology.

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2. The term “Christian Assembly” refers to a community of Christian worshippers rather than a church institution. The term “Little Flock” comes from Jesus' words to his followers in the Gospel of Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom,” Wickeri, Philip L., Seeking the Common Ground: Protestant Christianity, the Three-Self Movement, and China's United Front (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988), 162.

3. Scott, James C., Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985), and Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990).

4. Kolluri, Satish, “Minority Existence and the Subject of (Religious) Conversion,” Cultural Dynamics 14:1 (03 2002): 8195.

5. Kinnear, Angus, Against the Tide: The Story of Watchman Nee (Fort Washington, Penn.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1973); Newman, Sze, Ni Tuosheng xundaoshi [The Martyrdom of Watchman Nee], 2nd ed. (Culver, Calif.: Testimony, 1995); and Chan, Stephen C. T., Wode jiufu Ni Tuosheng [My Uncle, Watchman Nee], 4th ed. (Hong Kong: Logos, 1999).

6. Ka-Lun, Leung, Ni Tuosheng de rongru shengchu [Watchman Nee: His Glory and Dishonor] (Hong Kong: Alliance Bible Seminary, 2003); and Ying, Fuk-Tsang, “Ni Tuosheng yu sanzi gexin yundong [Watchman Nee and the Three-Self Movement, 1949–1951],” Jian Dao: A Journal of Bible and Theology 20 (07 2003): 129–75.

7. Vivian Wagner, “The Management of Memory in the PRC: How to Keep Pandora's Box Tightly Closed” (paper presented at the VII European Association of Chinese Studies Conference in Edinburgh, September 10–13, 1998), and “Class Struggle and Commerce: Utilizing the Archival Heritage of the PRC” (paper presented at the XIV European Association of Chinese Studies Conference in Mosow, August 26–28, 2002). See also Tse-Hei Lee, Joseph, “Testing Missionary Archives against Congregational Histories: Mapping Christian Communities in South China,” Exchange: Journal of Missiological and Ecumenical Research 32:4 (2003): 361–77.

8. Zhonghua renmin gongheguo gong'anbu diyiju [The First Department of the Bureau of Public Security of the People's Republic of China] (comp.), Jidutu juhuichu (xiaoqun) gaikuang [Report on the Christian Assembly (Little Flock)] (hereafter Report on the Little Flock), 1–21.

9. Wang, Cheng-Chih, Words Kill: Calling for the Destruction of “Class Enemies” in China, 1949–1953 (New York: Routledge, 2002), 2759 and 8493.

10. Wou, Odoric Y. K., Mobilizing the Masses: Building Revolution in Henan (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994), 187211.

11. Kinnear, , Against the Tide, 41, 4655; Wu, Silas, Yu Cidu: Ershi shiji Zhongguo jiaohui fuxing de xianqu [Dora Yu: Harbinger of Christian Church Revival in Twentieth-Century China] (Boston, Mass.: Pishon River, 2000), 189–94; and May, Grace Y., “Watchman Nee and the Breaking of Bread: The Missiological and Spiritual Forces that Contributed to an Indigenous Chinese Ecclesiology” (Th.D. diss., School of Theology, Boston University, 2000), 7486.

12. May, , “Watchman Nee and the Breaking of Bread,” 86100.

13. Scott Latourette, Kenneth, Christianity in a Revolutionary Age: A History of Christianity in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Volume II. The Nineteenth Century in Europe: The Protestant and Eastern Churches (London.: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1960), 344–45; and Rowdon, Harold H., “The Brethren,” in A Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity, eds. Briggs, John H. Y., Linder, Robert D., and Wright, David (Oxford: Lion, 1977), 520–21.

14. This idea of the priesthood of all believers is derived from 1 Peter in the New Testament: “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ,” 1 Peter 2:4–5.

15. Tse-Hei Lee, Joseph, The Bible and the Gun: Christianity in South China, 1860–1900 (New York: Routledge, 2003).

16. May, , “Watchman Nee and the Breaking of Bread,” 245–47.

17. Pei-Yuan Lu, Luke, “Watchman Nee's Doctrine of the Church with Special Reference to Its Contribution to the Local Church Movement” (Ph.D. diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1992), 248–51; and Nee, Watchman, The Open Door, no. 20, The Collected Works of Watchman Nee, vol. 55 (Anaheim, Calif.: Living Stream Ministry, 1994), 179, cited from May, , “Watchman Nee and the Breaking of Bread,” 272.

18. Lu, , “Watchman Nee's Doctrine of the Church,” 252–54; May, , “Watchman Nee and the Breaking of Bread,” 272–73.

19. According to its usage in the New Testament, the term “apostles” refers to people who Jesus Christ had assigned the task of preaching his religious message and who had witnessed the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In using this term, Watchman Nee sought to highlight the continuity of the apostolic church created in the first century a.d. and the Little Flock, even though this connection was entirely imaginary.

20. May, , “Watchman Nee and the Breaking of Bread,” 284–86.

21. Ibid., 287.

22. Watchman Nee, “Recounting Things of the Past,” December 4, 1932, cited from Howard Cliff, Norman, “The Life and Theology of Watchman Nee, Including a Study of the Little Flock Movement Which He Founded” (M. Phil, diss., Open University, U.K., 1983), 9091.

23. Bays, Daniel H., “Indigenous Protestant Churches in China, 1900–1937: A Pentecostal Case Study,” in Indigenous Responses to Western Christianity, ed. Kaplan, Steven (New York: New York University Press, 1995), 138.

24. May, , “Watchman Nee and the Breaking of Bread,” 293.

25. Ka-Lun, Leung, “Shulingren yu Ni Tuosheng de sanyuanren lun [Trichotomistic Anthropology of Watchman Nee in The Spiritual Man],” Alliance Bible Seminary Centenary Issue—A joint Issue with the Pastoral Journal, No. 8 and Jian Dao, No. 13 (December 1999): 183232.

26. Ka-Lun, Leung, “Ni Tuosheng zai yijiu siba nian de fuchu yu xiangguan zongjiao lilun [Religious Justifications for Watchman Nee's Return to Leadership in 1948],” in Ni Tuosheng de rongru shengchu [Watchman Nee: His Glory and Dishonor] (Hong Kong: Alliance Bible Seminary, 2003), 97184.

27. The Chinese government claimed that the Little Flock had as many as 870 assemblies with eighty thousand adherents in 1955, but other scholars estimated the Little Flock adherents to be seventy thousand. For details, see Report on the Little Flock, 4; Guest, Kenneth J., God in Chinatown: Religion and Survival in New York's Evolving Immigrant Community (New York: New York University Press, 2003), 9294; and Kinnear, , Against the Tide, 101–13.

28. Dunch, Ryan, “Protestant Christianity in China Today: Fragile, Fragmented, Flourishing,” in China and Christianity: Burdened Past, Hopeful Future, eds. Uhalley, Stephen Jr. and Wu, Xiaoxin (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001), 200.

29. Shantou City Archive, Zongjiaoju dang'an [The Archives of the Bureau of Religious Affairs], Folder no. 85–1–53, “Shantou shi jidujiao sanzi aiguo yundong weiyuanhui wenyuan jianlibiao [The Curriculum Vitas of the Committee Members of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee in Shantou].”

30. Kinnear, , Against the Tide, 184–93; and Report on the Little Flock, 9–11, 20.

31. Report on the Little Flock, 6–7.

32. Yu, Anthony C., “On State and Religion in China: A Brief Historical Reflection,” Religion East and West 3 (2003): 120. See also Peter Laamann, Lars, “Anti-Christian Agitation as an Example of Late Imperial Anticlericalism,” Extrême-Orient, Extrême-Occident 24 (2002): 4762; Ka-Lun, Leung, “Zongjiao gongju lun—Zhonggong dui zongjiao de lijie yu liyong [Religion for State: The Political Exploitation of Religion by the CCP in China],” Jian Dao: A Journal of Bible and Theology 22 (07 2004): 126; and Bays, Daniel H., “A Tradition of State Dominance,” in God and Caesar in China: Policy Implications of Church-State Tensions, eds. Kindopp, Jason and Hamrin, Carol Lee (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2004), 2539.

33. Yang, C. K., Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Factors (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland, 1991), 381–87.

34. National Archives and Records Administration of the United States (hereafter National Archives), College Park, Maryland, United States Department of State Archives (hereafter USDSA), Record Group Number 59 (RG59), Records of Office of Chinese Affairs (1948–56), Microfilm C0012, Roll No. 24/0298, File No. 570.3, “Notes on Reports of Conferences with Premier Chow En Lai Regarding the Christian Church in China.” See also Burke Library of the Union Theological Seminary, New York, Missionary Research Library Collections on China, David Willard Lyon, Box 1, Folder 20, Y. T. Wu, “A New Era in Chinese Student Movements,” February 5, 1931; and Yale Divinity School Library, China Records Project Miscellaneous Personal Papers Collections, Record Group Number 8 (RG8), Box 244, Gu Changsheng, Yesu kuliao: Gu Changsheng huiyilu (1945–1984) [Jesus Wept: Memoir of Gu Changsheng (1945–1984)], 31–32.

35. National Archives, USDSA, RG 59, Microfilm C0012, Roll No. 20/0164, File No. 620.004, “Meeting with Representatives of Mission Boards and Relief Organizations,” July 19, 1950; Roll No. 24/0298, File No. 570.3, Tom Lee, Hong Kong, April 21, 1951 and April 28, 1951.

36. Yale Divinity School Library, China Records Project Miscellaneous Personal Papers Collections, RG8, Box 113, Lee, Thomas I., “Release Number 10: To Friends Interested in the Christian Church in China,” 03 17, 1956, 15. See also Wickeri, , Seeking the Common Ground, 117–53; Ling, Oi-Ki, The Changing Role of the British Protestant Missionaries in China, 1945–1952 (London: Associated University Presses, 1999), 122–80; and Yeo, K. K., Chairman Mao Meets the Apostle Paul: Christianity, Communism, and the Hope of China (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2002), 152–62.

37. Zhaoming, Deng, “Indigenous Chinese Pentecostal Denominations,” China Study Journal 16:3 (12 2001): 522; and Kindopp, Jason, “Bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to China: China's Protestants in Movement” (paper presented at the Religion, Political Economy and Society Project, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, 02 18, 2003).

38. Report on the Little Flock, 13.

39. Cliff, , “The Life and Theology of Watchman Nee,” 5152.

40. National Archives, USDSA, RG 59, Microfilm C0012, Roll No. 29/0852, File No. 570.3, Tom Lee, Hong Kong, August 19, 1952, 10, and December 19, 1952, 9. See also Yale Divinity School Library, RG8, Box 113, Lee, “Release Number 10,” 5–10; and Alan Harvey, Thomas, Acquainted with Grief: Wang Mingdao's Stand for the Persecuted Church in China (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos, 2002).

41. Ka-Lun, Leung, “Ni Tuosheng youguan kongzui de kaozheng [An Examination of Accusations against Watchman Nee],” in Ni Tuosheng de rongru shengchu, 196; and Ying, “Watchman Nee.”

42. Ling, , The Changing Role of the British Protestant Missionaries in China, 148–80.

43. Report on the Little Flock, 11 and 20–21.

44. Wou, , Mobilizing the Masses, 187.

45. Hsű, Immanuel C. Y., The Rise of Modern China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 652–53.

46. Report on the Little Flock, 13–14.

47. Hsű, , The Rise of Modern China, 653.

48. Report on the Little Flock, 14.

49. “The Editorial,” Zhejiang ribao [Zhejiang Daily News], 27 January 1956, 2.

50. Hsű, , The Rise of Modern China, 658; and Kindopp, , “Bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to China.”

51. Report on the Little Flock, 14–15; and Ying, , “Watchman Nee,” 150–53.

52. Bays, Daniel H., “The Growth of Independent Christianity in China, 1900–1937,” in Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996), 311–12.

53. Meisner, Maurice, The Deng Xiaoping Era: An Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978–1980 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996), 39.

54. Report on the Little Flock, 16.

55. Ibid., 14–15.

56. Ibid., 16; and Xin Hunan bao [New Hunan Newspaper], 17 January 1956, 3.

57. Library of the Universities Service Center, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Neibu cankao [Internal References], February 8, 1955, 107.

58. Report on the Little Flock, 18.

59. Ibid.

60. Ibid., 19.

61. Ibid., 16–17.

62. Ibid., 17–18.

63. Ibid., 20.

64. Yang, , Religion in Chinese Society, 400401.

65. David Dubois, Thomas, “Apocalyptic Sectarians: The Way of Penetrating Unity and the End of Days,” unpublished paper.

66. “The Editorial,” Jiefang ribao [Liberation Daily News], 1 February 1956, 1 and 3.

67. Fuzhou ribao [Fuzhou Daily News], 2 February 1952; “The Editorial,” Xin Hunan bao [New Hunan Newspaper], 17 January 1956, 1 and 3; and “The Editorial,” Zhejiang ribao [Zhejiang Daily News], 27 January 1956, 2.

68. Library of the Universities Service Center, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Neibu cankao [Internal References], October 13, 1958, 1820.

69. Bays, Daniel H., “Chinese Protestant Christianity Today,” The China Quarterly 174 (06 2003): 488504.

70. Chan, Kim-Kwong and Hunter, Alan, Prayers and Thought of Chinese Christians (Boston, Mass.: Cowley, 1991); Zhaoming, Deng, Chengshou yu chishou: Zhongguo dadi di fuyin huoju [The Torch of the Testimony in China] (Hong Kong: Christian Study Center on Chinese Religion and Culture, 1998); Yamamori, Tetsunao and Chan, Kim-Kwong, Witnesses to Power: Stories of God's Quiet Work in a Changing China (Carlisle, U.K.: Paternoster, 2001); Aikman, David, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington D.C.: Regnery, 2003); and Cheng, May M. C., ”House Church Movements and Religious Freedom in China,“ China: An International Journal 1:1 (03 2003): 1645.

71. Cohen, Paul A., ”The Contested Past: The Boxers as History and Myth,” Journal of Asian Studies 51:1 (02 1992): 83.

72. Hezu Li, Joseph, “The Transformation of the Chinese Catholic Church under the Communist Government in the 1950s” (M.A. diss., Graduate Theological Union, 1999); Wiest, Jean-Paul, “Setting Roots: The Catholic in China to 1949,” and Madsen, Richard, “Catholic Conflict and Cooperation in the People's Republic of China,” in God and Caesar in China, 77106; Madsen, Richard, “Understanding Falun Gong,” Current History (09 2000): 243–47; Pramod, C. R., “Falun Gong: Understanding the ‘Threat’ Perception of ‘Gods’ and ‘Demons’ in the People's Republic of China,” China Report: A Journal of East Asian Studies 36:1 (01-03 2000): 101–7; and Xiao, Hongyan, “Falun Gong and the Ideological Crisis of the Chinese Communist Party: Marxist Atheism vs. Vulgar Theism,” East Asia: An International Quarterly 19:1–2 (spring/summer 2001): 123–43.

1 Throughout this article, the term “Christian” refers to members of the Little Flock Movement and followers of other Protestant denominations in China. The terms “Catholics” and “Protestants” refer to specific sectarian groups.

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