Exclusivity and the True Jesus Church

Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Auckland. She is the author, among other books, of Crossings, published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.

On Sunday, 29 March, Russell M. Nelson, president of the 16-million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, released a video from Salt Lake City calling on church members everywhere to join in a fast “to pray for relief from the physical, emotional, and economic effects of this global pandemic.”

Some 71 years before, on 6 April 1949, members of the True Jesus Church around the world responded to the call of their leader, Wei Yisa to fast and “pray for peace.” Communist forces were advancing on the city of Nanjing, where the church headquarters was located. Shortages were severe and prices were skyrocketing.

“It is hard to buy even one grain of rice,” reported an article in the Holy Spirit Times, the church’s international periodical.

One month’s worth of contributions is not enough to cover basic needs such as a day’s vegetables. It is not enough to cover even one day’s postage. We have begun to take good wood beams intended for building and sell them for firewood.

A worldwide fast as a response to a life-threatening crisis, just as spring was beginning to warm the days and coax bright colors from the earth, is a lot for these two churches to have in common. But the parallels go far beyond this.

Both the True Jesus Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are restorationist churches, claiming to have restored the true gospel of Jesus Christ after centuries of apostasy. The Latter-day Saint tradition starts in the spring of 1820 when a New York farmboy named Joseph Smith said he had a vision in which God the Father and Jesus Christ told him none of the existing churches were true. The True Jesus Church tradition starts nearly a century later in the spring of 1917, when a rural northeastern Chinese man named Wei Enbo said he had a vision in which Jesus Christ commanded him to “correct the Church.”

Both Smith and Wei were charismatic leaders who claimed to receive divine revelation, were reported to have performed miraculous feats of healing, frequently got on the wrong side of the law, and died young. Both were succeeded by pragmatic leaders (Brigham Young and Wei Yisa) who solidified church institutions and ensured the movement’s long-term survival.

Both churches have continued to thrive and expand globally, though they remain tiny as far as world religious movements are concerned. In 2017 the True Jesus Church, now with 1.5 million members, commemorated the 100th anniversary of Wei Enbo’s founding vision. This year the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, claiming 16 million members, celebrates the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s first vision (coincidentally, the day Smith formally organized the church in 1830 was 6 April—the same day as the True Jesus Church fast in 1949).

Restorationist churches are by nature exclusivist. For instance, Wei Enbo taught that no one could be saved unless they were baptized face-down and unless they had spoken in tongues. This exclusivist certainty leads to a universalistic orientation. In other words, the more a religious tradition insists that specific particulars of theology and practice are absolutely essential, the more likely it is to have mission outposts everywhere. If you believe your church is the only complete form of Christianity, when you move to another city or country, the local cathedral or neighborhood megachurch will not meet your needs. Wherever you go, you will seek out fellow believers like yourself, and if there are none, you will begin to seek converts.

Small, exclusivist religious groups tend to irritate people around them. Throughout their history, fellow Christians have labeled these two churches as disreputable and cultish. The Latter-day Saint movement began in upstate New York, but was driven west by flare-ups of mob violence and state suppression. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Communist party-state banned the True Jesus Church, imprisoning leaders and forcing rank-and-file members to meet secretly in their houses.

It’s sometimes difficult for upstart religious movements to strike the right balance between what sociologist Armand Mauss has called the twin dilemmas of respectability and disrepute. This is evident with the case of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea. Also led by a charismatic individual, also accused of being a cult, and also with a membership that likes to do things together, the church is now under fire.

Yet the resonance between the worldwide fasts of the True Jesus Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the spring of 1949 and 2020 suggests that such small but distinctive religious traditions also have something uniquely positive to offer. In the aftermath of World War II and today at the beginning of the twenty-first century, concepts such as “global arena” or “global community” are certainly viable. Yet in actuality, with real people, global scale tends to be overwhelming. It is nearly impossible to cast a global net without being sunk by the size of the catch. Small religious movements, however, are better positioned to pull it off.

Like Wei Yisa’s appeal to the True Jesus Church members in 1949, Russell M. Nelson’s call for a fast at the beginning of the first week of April 2020 went out to believers in such places as China, Japan, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom. Tens of thousands, possibly even millions of stomachs around the world went empty in concert. A fast offering was also collected to aid humanitarian efforts to ease the blow COVID-19 is dealing to the most vulnerable.

In times of global pandemic, inhabitants of the planet realize how inextricably we are connected, and also how little we usually have to do with each other, given vast divides in language, culture, space, and experience. In times like these, believers in tiny global communities who have long been eager to call each other sister and brother offer a sense of what is possible.

Comments

  1. joshua h says:

    We’ve been taught that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the one, exclusive organization with priesthood authority and keys to represent Jesus Christ and His church. And that narrative made a lot of sense to me in the 70s and 80s when I was growing up and the Church was growing. I saw a spreadsheet in the early 90s that convinced me that Mormonism would be a MAJOR world religion by 2050. But we are now growing at 1-2% a year and it seems like that isn’t going to change any time soon. So I wonder more and more why the Lord’s one and true organization only represents 2/1000 of the world’s population. And assuming we are 50% active, it’s really more like 1/1000. Hard to understand the Lord’s design here. Saying that we are “exclusive” has various connotations.

  2. I am interested in your opinion about the rise of Christianity in China. We Mormons are hardly even in the game in China.

    My son has gone to China twice, ostensibly to teach and do research at a top Chinese university. My wife attends a Protestant church with an outreach to Chinese students who come to the US to study at the universities. We know people who went to China to help smuggle Bibles into the country which could have landed them in prison. We have had Chinese students stay at our home for as long as a week before finding a place to live. My wife has befriended and helps a number of Chinese housewives with small children who came here with their husbands to study. This has expanded our perspective about life in China and our love for these people.

    Most surprising is the growth of Christianity there. It does not follow our model which is: top leadership gains official approval, mission presidents establish missions and young missionaries are assigned to find converts and establish branches, wards, eventually stakes. Sharing or practicing Christianity is illegal there with some exceptions.

    People self-convert, often without having ever read a single verse in the scriptures or talked to a western Christian. They face intense persecution, if not part of one of the fake churches approved and controlled tightly by the government. If they begin to have any organizational leaders or property, the leaders are arrested and the property is confiscated. Estimates range from 2 to 10% of Chinese are Christians which could mean there are more practicing Christians in China than in Western Europe. They are neither Catholic nor Protestant, most don’t really understand or care about the differences. All of our members there are from the west or have very tight ties to the west. My son never met a Mormon in the interior of China.

    Foreign refugees, from North Korea especially, are largely women. They have to sell their body to guards to get out and end up in the underground adult entertainment business where they face dismal lives and early death. Underground Christian churches are known to provide a safe haven and help them escape.

    My son was free to just wander around China anywhere he wished. He is tall, muscular, with long blond curly hair. Distinctly American. He is quiet and polite and sneaky. He is also extremely devout and doesn’t say much about what he was doing in China. But it is evident that he was spreading the gospel.

    I know there are secret gatherings of at least hundreds of Christians who will stand for hours to hear western Christians explain the teachings of the New Testament, verse by verse, while it is translated. He is an excellent teacher and has designed science courses at the college level.

    I don’t know anyone who has a better combination of strength and stamina, backpacking & wilderness survivals kills, exceptional night vision, and can memorize topo maps like him. It would not be difficult to image him leading a group of people on a week-long, >100 mile hike at night across rugged terrain. He has done about the same with me as a teenager 5 times; in the Uintahs, Tetons, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.

    The parents of one of our Chinese friends was put into a camp for practicing an illegal religion. Their son (now our friend) was sent to live with an Aunt who managed to bribe his way out to visit friends in the US and he never went back. His father was executed while his mother got out of the camp.

    She describes the camp to him as not too bad. People were allowed to grow their own food and stay fairly healthy. They have their blood drawn and (HLA) typed. When a rich international patient needs a heart, liver or kidney transplant, they check their (HLA) type and find a match in their database containing hundreds of thousands of prisoners.This in a few hours, while the same patient would be put on a waiting list for months to years in the west.

    That prisoner is sentenced to death, has the “option” to donate their organs, and is legally executed. They are taken to a hospital, knowing what is going to happen. If they put up much resistance, they are not even given anesthesia, just strapped down and are still awake and in pain, as their heart or liver or kidney is removed. His mother was taken to the hospital and then sent back when she was found to have hepatitis and managed to escape. There are similar stories on the internet.
    .
    Many people are brainwashed by the Chinese government. Most Chinese will not discuss politics or their government at all. But some of them paint a picture of a brutality and savagery that is perhaps more clever and patient, but dangerously similar to the Mongols of the 12 century. Our government has been useful fools in their perception and dealings with them.

    Rising influence of Christianity is a path of hope for change in China. Historically, it has resulted in civil war, which the government knows well. Otherwise, war between China and the West seems nigh inevitable. As they trample on every international agreement and relentlessly expand into Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indochina, the South Pacific and later Korea and Japan. We are already at economic war with them.

    Perhaps you have another opinion and will teach me something.

  3. Josiah Reckons says:

    I like that you find that small distinctive religious groups have something to offer the world. We are a very small group on a global scale, but we want to bless the nations like Abraham was promised his seed would do. The global fast invitation invites people to briefly unite in thought and action in a way that may increase hope, cooperation, and love. I was a bit disappointed to be asked to fast on Good Friday because our family cooks and eats hit cross buns on Friday morning. This year, I guess we’ll eat them for supper or dinner or something. In any case, your thoughts have encouraged me or helped me feel more motivated about the fast. Thanks Melissa.

  4. Aussie Mormon says:

    joshua “But we are now growing at 1-2% a year and it seems like that isn’t going to change any time soon.”

    Any growth when belief/adherence to Christianity (or even religion as a whole) is decreasing is nothing to be sniffed at.

  5. In 2019 approximately 70,000 people in the USA entered the Catholic Church. Just saying.

  6. BJohnson says:

    joshua “So I wonder more and more why the Lord’s one and true organization only represents 2/1000 of the world’s population”

    A very sensible concern. Usually the victory and the influence that goes with it lies with the big battalions. But certain items spoken long ago have caused me to realize that the Lord tends to thread his influence through the world a bit differently:

    “The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers,” Deut. 7:7-8

    My question then is not “Are we the biggest and smartest thing in this world? but rather “Being a small and simple thing in the world, are we enough leaven to leaven the whole lump?”

  7. Size doesn’t matter as much as quality.

    I know, it is Friday night and this might get “moderated.”
    I’m not as concerned about being the “only true and living church,” or the “fastest growing church,”as being a good church. That likely means different things to different people and it is much more a local experience. My ward is pretty lousy as churches go around here. Your mileage may vary.