Restorationism in a Foreign Key

Grant Hardy is a Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.  He is the editor of the new Maxwell Institute study edition of the Book of Mormon.

ReviewMelissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church (Oxford, 2018).

When I was a young missionary in Taiwan, knocking on doors and trying to persuade people in my halting Mandarin to learn more about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I sometimes wondered how I might have responded if Chinese missionaries had shown up at my home in California with a message about a new prophet in China. I believe that God restored his true church in upstate New York in the 1830s, which was rather convenient for me and my American ancestors, but there really wasn’t any reason that he couldn’t have chosen someone in, say, southern China in the 1840s.

Later I learned that there was such a person, Hong Xiuquan, who after failing the civil service exams had seen a vision of the Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, along with a Heavenly Elder Brother whom he eventually identified as Jesus, based on some Christian tracts he later encountered. Hong gathered followers, received additional revelations, developed a theology that merged Old and New Testament teachings, organized a religious/political kingdom, revised the Bible to harmonize with his own revelations, and practiced polygamy. He also launched a rebellion against the Manchus that ended badly for tens of millions people and destroyed his nascent religion. The Taiping Rebellion, which played out in China about the same time as the American Civil War, was easily the most deadly conflict of the 19th century, far outpacing our own Civil War in both per capita and absolute numbers of deaths. (For a popular, scholarly account of the Hong’s life, see Jonathan Spence’s God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan [Norton, 1996]).

Melissa Inouye, at the University of Auckland, has just published a history of a less dramatic but more successful recent Chinese prophet—Wei Enbo, who founded the True Jesus Church in 1917. The story is that Wei, a silk merchant in Beijing, converted to Christianity and was baptized by a representative of the London Missionary Society. A few years later, he came into the circle of a Norwegian-American missionary who himself had traveled to Los Angeles to learn firsthand of the outpouring of the Spirit reported at the Azusa Street Mission. The missionary had returned to China to spread the new gospel of Pentecostalism. Wei eagerly joined in the healing miracles and speaking in tongues, but eventually grew dissatisfied.

On a May afternoon in 1917, as he was in the midst of a thirty-nine day fast, Wei heard a voice saying, “You must receive the baptism of Jesus.” He was led by the Spirit out of the city walls and to a river where he was commanded by a heavenly voice be baptized facedown, with his head bowed. He plunged into the water, and when he emerged he saw a vision of the Savior. After being gird with spiritual armor, he then fought against demons. The Spirit again came upon him and he spoke in tongues, seeing Jesus in heaven along with Moses, Elijah, and the twelve apostles.

After this remarkable experience, Wei continued with his fast and began to share his revelations, proclaiming that the other Christian churches were all wrong. God required facedown baptism in living water (a river or the ocean), and would manifest his Spirit just as he had in the New Testament with tongues, healings, exorcisms, visions, and miracles. Believers should meet together on Saturday Sabbaths for singing, preaching, prayer, communion, and footwashing, in anticipation of Christ’s imminent Second Coming. Also significantly, God insisted that his one true church must bear own his name, rather than the name of a man or some distinctive practice, and thus the True Jesus Church was born. Thousands heeded Wei Enbo’s call and, somewhat miraculously, his church survived though the horrific turmoil of China in the twentieth century. Today, a hundred years later, the True Jesus Church is one of the largest Christian groups in China and Taiwan, with 1.5 million members in over fifty countries. (By contrast, it took the LDS Church nearly 130 years to reach that same number.)

Inouye recounts the history of the church with verve and colorful details drawn from the lives of individual men and women, especially the latter. Because the Chinese Bible had translated 1 Timothy 3:11 as referring to “female deacons” (the KJV has “wives”; there are solid arguments for both renditions), then obviously a church that restored New Testament Christianity must have them, even though senior church offices were monopolized by men. Curiously, when the True Jesus Church was completely shut down by the government in 1958—the Chinese denomination faced much more severe government repression than the Latter-day Saints ever did—the movement was kept alive underground by these women until it could be revived in the early 1970s, towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. As one member told Inouye, “the government didn’t care about old women” (p. 225).

This volume is an exemplary work of religious history, in which Inouye combines archival research and fieldwork among current believers, balanced with just the right amount of theory to show how this singular story might relate to other religions in terms of charisma vs. organization, the social and economic roots of spiritual receptivity, the intersection of the mundane and the miraculous, church and state relations, the language of moral discourse, etc. Inouye has mastered the delicate art of writing about other people’s religious beliefs and experiences with sensitivity, compassion, and insight. In addition, China and the True Jesus is a terrific introduction to the sweep of modern Chinese history. (My only complaint is that the first time we meet Jiang Jieshi on p. 136, she doesn’t explain that he is often known in the West as Chiang Kai-shek; that clarification doesn’t come until p. 157.)

Parallels with Mormonism (the preferred term “restored gospel of Jesus Christ” could be confusing in the context of this review) are numerous: multiple, somewhat contradictory accounts of Wei’s first vision; an early schism in the church; a general conservatism manifest in prohibitions against drinking, smoking, extramarital sex, and tattoos; a sense among church members that they were stricter and closer to the Bible than other Christian sects, and that they alone had the true rites of salvation; and an attachment to Chinese exceptionalism that matches that of Mormons and American exceptionalism. As a Latter-day Saint herself, Inouye is aware of these similarities, but she mentions Joseph Smith and Mormonism only in passing, along with Adventists and Disciples of Christ. Still, for those with eyes to see, the parallels are evocative, as on p. 268 when True Jesus Church members respond to the perception that “since the 1980s, God has gradually ceased to be a God of miracles” (cf. Mormon 9:15).

China and the True Jesus is an important book for students of world Christianity, Chinese history, and religious studies, and, unlike some academic works, it is a delight to read. It will, however, have particular meaning for Latter-day Saints. Although we are eager for non-LDS scholars to open the Book of Mormon and study our remarkable history, we generally don’t spend enough time reading other people’s scriptures or church histories. Learning about the True Jesus Church offers a chance to reflect seriously about how unique we may or may not be, and how we might appear to outsiders. Each year my very Mormon family goes to a different church for a Christmas Eve service, in part to celebrate the birth of our Savior with fellow believers of other denominations, and partly because the music is often so good, but also to remember what it feels like to be in a new church for the first time, a bit self-conscious and unsure of how things are done. The experience helps us do better when strangers or investigators show up in our own sacrament meetings. Melissa Inouye’s book about the origins and rise of the True Jesus Church can offer a similar role-reversed perspective for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Addendum: Oxford University Press has marketed this volume as a specialized scholarly monograph rather than a general interest book, so it is prohibitively expensive. (I’m not sure they fully appreciated its potential in cross-cultural or comparative studies). I hope that it will eventually be realeased in paperback form, but in the meantime you can encourage your local library to buy a copy, or request one through interlibrary loan.





  1. Restorationism in yet another very different foreign key:
    As an LDS missionary in Europe, for some time I taught a Muslim family. The relevant part of that experience is that they belonged to a small sect of Islam that did not believe Mohammed was the last prophet. Instead, they believed that true Islam was restored through a subsequent prophet who organized their sect in 1830. That much is clearly what they told me; the 1830 date and the concept of restoration made that stick firmly in mind. I believe they indicated that the restoration happened in Egypt, but that memory is less clear these many decades later. I have never been able to identify that particular sect of Islam or to find further information. Perhaps a scholar of Islam could do so. Perhaps that sect did not survive to show up on the internet, but it had survived for ca. 137 years.

  2. Dane Laverty says:

    JR, Bahá’í is, I think, close to what you’re describing, though I think the relevant year for them would be 1844 rather than 1830.

  3. Yes, Baha’i is similar in some ways (and not others), but 1830 is definitely the right year for the Islamic sect I was told of.

  4. Grant Hardy says:

    It’s likely that JR ran into adherents of Ahmadiyya Islam, an important restorationist movement that began in 1889 (though its founder was born in 1835) and was instrumental in spreading Islam into Europe. The denomination is similar in size to Latter-day Saints (10-20 million), as are their claims of modern revelation. In addition, their strained relationship with mainstream Islam is quite similar to those of our own Church and mainstream Christianity. Ahmadiyya offers one of the closest parallels to LDS Restationism in recent history (along with Baha’i and the True Jesus Church).

  5. Grant, From what I have now read of Ahmadiyya Islam, it is quite possible that it was the sect in question and the particular adherents I met with were wrong about the 1830 date they told me. Thanks.

  6. Jared Livesey says:

    Mosiah 3:13 And the Lord God hath sent his holy prophets among all the children of men [before Christ came], to declare these things to every kindred, nation, and tongue, that thereby whosoever should believe that Christ should come, the same might receive remission of their sins, and rejoice with exceedingly great joy, even as though he had already come among them.

    Alma 29:8 For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.

    Mormon 9:9 For do we not read that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing?

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    This was fascinating; thanks for the great review.

    I was interested in your note about female deacons in 1 Timothy 3:11; I don’t recall running into that issue before. I see that many translations are noncommittal and give a note saying the reference could be to wives or female deacons. For anyone else who is interested in this, I’ll copy below the note from the NET Bible that sort of outlines the evidence:

    Or “also deaconesses.” The Greek word here is γυναῖκας (gunaika”) which literally means “women” or “wives.” It is possible that this refers to women who serve as deacons, “deaconesses.” The evidence is as follows: (1) The immediate context refers to deacons; (2) the author mentions nothing about wives in his section on elder qualifications (1 Tim 3:1-7); (3) it would seem strange to have requirements placed on deacons’ wives without corresponding requirements placed on elders’ wives; and (4) elsewhere in the NT, there seems to be room for seeing women in this role (cf. Rom 16:1 and the comments there). The translation “wives” – referring to the wives of the deacons – is probably to be preferred, though, for the following reasons: (1) It would be strange for the author to discuss women deacons right in the middle of the qualifications for male deacons; more naturally they would be addressed by themselves. (2) The author seems to indicate clearly in the next verse that women are not deacons: “Deacons must be husbands of one wife.” (3) Most of the qualifications given for deacons elsewhere do not appear here. Either the author has truncated the requirements for women deacons, or he is not actually referring to women deacons; the latter seems to be the more natural understanding. (4) The principle given in 1 Tim 2:12 appears to be an overarching principle for church life which seems implicitly to limit the role of deacon to men. Nevertheless, a decision in this matter is difficult, and our conclusions must be regarded as tentative.

  8. Sounds like a fascinating book and of obvious interest to scholars of other new religious movements. The parallels to early Mormonism seem obvious.

  9. Thanks for the review. And the several useful comments (including the list of other parallels).

  10. Thank you. I’m so glad you served in Taiwan and have done so much to bring this part of the world to us. BOM high fives. You are one my favorite scholars. Thanks to Melissa Inouye.

  11. This is only one second hand personal experience compared to the work of probably decades of research by a great scholar.

    I have a relative who has been fascinated by China since childhood and seeing pandas in the zoo. He became a scientist and graduated at the very top of a leading STEM institute. He has published important scientific articles. He did not serve a mission for complex reasons. He walks close to the Lord and feels drawn to Asian students here.

    He was given the opportunity to teach at what was described as the MIT of China for a season which he did and returned later to China to teach again, a few years ago. He found a group of ex-pat Mormons in Beijing who meet but no attempts to do any actual converting. In contrast he found a very alive and vibrant underground of evangelical missionary work. He attended secret meetings of Christians who numbered in the hundreds. At these he was invariably asked to speak through a translator because he was the only person in the room who had read more than a smattering of verses in a Bible. They listened and asked questions for hours and hours. He traveled around as a tourist and found secret Christians by the thousands everywhere he went.

    There was no real organization, the government cut it down if it got too much influence. Most are in house-based groups or smaller. They know little about the complex issues that divide us in the west. It is a simple faith founded on a few verses describing the most basic message of salvation through faith in Jesus and prayer and spiritual experiences probably mixed with native Chinese religious ideas. Evangelical missionaries masquerade as English teachers or other volunteers. Some estimate that about 10% of China has self-converted to Christianity which could be far above 100 million people, larger numbers than practicing Christians in Western Europe.

    The second trip teaching in Manchuria was more shrouded in mystery. My guess is that it involved quiet teaching as before and helping women trafficked from North Korea get to safe countries. That is a common ministry in that area. A winter trek across the border into Mongolia is not impossible. He has taken week long expeditions in Alaska and the Uintah/Teton/Sawtooth mountains and is an experienced backpacker.

    A few years have passed and I hear nothing of the most recent developments in China which has a long history of accepting and rejecting Christianity, since I believe the 7th century. My relative has not gone back and will not discuss this chapter of his life.

    I was thinking this book might be about the most recent miracle in China and will it spark another catastrophic war?

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