Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Maoist China

  The experience of Watchman Nee(Ni Tuosheng )and the Christian Assembly(Jidutujuhuichu or Jidutu juhuisuo )in Mainland China after the Communist Revolution of1949 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.[2]It was not created by a foreign missionaryenterprise.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 ,self-governing,and self-propagating churches.But it did not share the highly politicized anti-imperialistrhetoric of another Three-Self Movement ,the Communist-initiated “Three-Self PatrioticMovement”(sanzi aiguo yundong ):self-rule autonomous from foreign missionaryand imperialist control ,financial self-support without foreign donations,andself-preaching independent of any Christian missionary influences.As the overarchingorganization of the one-party state ,the Three-Self Patriotic Movement sought toensure that all Chinese Protestant congregations would submit to the socialist ideology.

  Because the Little Flock was Chinese in origin and a truly Three-Self Christianmovement,Watchman Nee and his followers refused to be subject to the control ofthe Maoist state.They strongly believed that they were called out of this worldto follow and serve Jesus Christ and that they could exist outside of politics yetcoexist with the Communist government in the post-1949era.As with the Chineseimperial officials,fear of ideological autonomy drove the Maoist social engineersto impose tight control over Protestant communities.At the political level ,statecontrol relied on censorship,anti-Christian propaganda ,and the careful rewritingof history.At the local level,control was achieved through intimidation ,arrest,and punishment of those church leaders who refused to cooperate with the Maoiststate and who upheld a different view of church and state relations ,especiallywhen it contradicted the Communist version of a new China.In this hostile environment,the Little Flock had no choice but to confront the mighty Communist state.Thispattern of Christian activism not only highlights the role of popular resistanceagainst state-imposed modernity ,but it also reminds us of what James C.Scottcalls “weapons of the weak ”in popular protests by a subordinate group againstthe hegemonic power under the most oppressive circumstances.[3]

  The Little Flock‘s reluctance to affiliate with the state-controlled Three-SelfPatriotic Movement raised the problem of political identification with the Maoiststate.Since the state perceived ideological identification as synonymous with absoluteloyalty to the new political and social order ,Christian conversion was a directattack on Maoist ideology and a protest against state intervention into church affairs.[4]By rejecting Maoism ,the Little Flock adhered to Watchman Nee’s theological perspectiveson the autonomy of the church ,asserting that all churches were directly underthe authority of Jesus Christ rather than any external organization ;and that eachchurch should be an independent body,selecting its leaders and running its affairs.In affirming their Christian identity ,the Little Flock Christians found themselvesdivided between preaching the divine or affirming the Maoist ideology ,and optingfor political stability by submitting to the state or resisting the state in endlesspolitical campaigns.Some Little Flock members chose to collaborate with the state,whereas other members refused to do so,but either way,they were embroiled in politics.The degree of tension and conflict with the state made them an easy target of attackthroughout the Maoist era (1949每76)。

  Beginning with an account of Watchman Nee ‘s Christian Assembly and his viewson church-state relations ,this article examines the fluid and complex politicalcircumstances that the Little Flock experienced and the ways they interacted withthe Maoist state in the early 1950s.A critique of the state persecution of ChineseChristian communities under the cover of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement follows.Then,the article discusses a wide range of strategies that the Little Flock employedfor survival during the Maoist era.Rather than sitting in judgment on what theydid ,this study seeks to analyze the problems confronted by Watchman Nee and theLittle Flock in order to gain a better understanding of human strengths and weaknessesin one of the most turbulent periods of modern Chinese history.

  What happened inside the Little Flock communities ?Admittedly,the lack ofarchival sources and ethnographic data limits our knowledge of the Little FlockMovement in post-1949China.Tensions and conflicts with the Communist governmentdrove the Little Flock underground throughout the Maoist era.Though the LittleFlock resumed its activities openly when China was opened to the outside world in1978,its members remained critical of the state-controlled Three-Self Patrioticchurches.Its controversial status has made it difficult for Chinese and foreignresearchers to conduct fieldwork among the Little Flock in China today.

  It is also difficult to piece together the thorough account of their leader.There are a few biographical works on Watchman Nee written by Christians abroad.[5]Aimed at the Overseas Chinese churches critical of Communist religious policy ,these works emphasize the saintly character of Watchman Nee without addressing thecontexts in which he interacted with the government.Recent studies by Leung Ka-Lunand Ying Fuk-Tsang of Hong Kong are important for our understanding of the subject.[6]Drawing on published and unpublished Chinese official sources ,Leung and Ying presentinvaluable findings about the changing attitude of Watchman Nee towards the Communiststate and his ambiguous relationship with leaders of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.This study builds on their research to explore the complexities of church-staterelations in post-1949China.

  With respect to Communist religious policy,this study relies on an unpublishedreport compiled by the First Department of the Bureau of Public Security of thePeople‘s Republic of China (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo gong’anbu diyiju )in August1955.As Vivian Wagner points out ,the archival system of the Maoist state wasa powerful instrument of control used by the Bureau of Public Security in all majorpolitical purges.[7]This official report on the Little Flock is no exception :it was compiled to provide the Communist officials with information to destroy theLittle Flock Movement.It consists of highly controversial evidence about “politicalcrimes”of Watchman Nee and other Little Flock leaders.The political nature ofthe report presents two methodological problems for historical research.[8]

  The first problem concerns the nature of the report.A confidential documentfrom“internal publications ”(neibu ),the report is written in the orthodoxMaoist discourse and intended for Communist Party officials in charge of publicsecurity and religious affairs.It characterizes the Little Flock leaders as“counter-revolutionaries,”

  “reactionary forces,”and “class enemies.”These labels are not hollow slogans.They strongly accuse the Little Flock leaders of acting like“class enemies ”〞those who had been socially and politically dominant under the former Nationalistregime and were unwilling to surrender their privileges to the People ‘s Governmentafter 1949.Such accusations justify persecution by all available means ,includingstate violence,against them.[9]Therefore,it is important to be aware of the anti-Christianbiases that went into the report.

  The second problem concerns factual discrepancies in the report.From the late1940s onwards ,the Communist Party had recruited some Little Flock church membersas informants and collaborators.This was a bottom-up strategy of coalition politicstypical of the revolutionary movement.[10]The report ,then,presents an insider‘s perspective on the Little Flock activities.Its primary focus is on the LittleFlock ’s connection with Nationalist government officials before and after theCommunist Revolution.However ,throughout the mid-twentieth century,China wasin perpetual flux ,and the views of Little Flock leaders towards the CommunistParty varied in time and place.Their views about the Communist Party recorded inthe report〞what was said in public 〞might differ considerably from opinions expressedin private.Instead of making generalizations about the Little Flock activitiesand their interaction with the state,scholars should highlight the complexitiesof Communist religious policy and the diverse responses of Little Flock Christians.

  Nevertheless,these problems are not sufficient reasons for rejecting the reportcompletely.For one thing ,the Communist state has not released all archival materialsabout Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement.The report gives us valuable informationabout the Little Flock expansion into different parts of China before and after1949,its organizational structure,geographical mobility ,and nationwide networks,as well as its responses to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement.All these detailscannot be seen in any other sources ,and it was these very features that arousedthe state suspicion towards this tiny fraction of the Christian population.

  I.Watchman Nee and the Little Flock

  The Christian Assembly originated from the teaching and ministry of WatchmanNee (1903-72),who was probably the most influential Chinese Protestant preacherin the early twentieth century.Born in 1903,Watchman Nee grew up in a third-generationAnglican family.His paternal grandfather ,Ni Yucheng(d.1890)was a native ofFuzhou and baptized in 1857.Reputedly a gifted preacher,he later became the firstordained Chinese pastor in northern Fujian province.Nee‘s father,Ni Wenxiu ,was a customs official in the treaty port of Shantou in northeastern Guangdong provinceand a member of the Board of the Fuzhou Young Men ’s Christian Association (YMCA)

  during the first two decades of the twentieth century.Coming from a relativelywell-off and well-established Christian family,Watchman Nee inherited a strongconnection with the Anglican mission in Fuzhou.While studying at a Christian highschool,Anglican Trinity College,in Fuzhou in 1920,he underwent an “emotionalconversion”experience at a meeting held by the famous independent evangelist ,Dora Yu (1873每1931),who had conducted revival meetings among Chinese Protestantcongregations during the 1900s and 1910s,and founded a Bible Study and Prayer Housein Shanghai for teaching women the Bible and evangelistic skills.[11]

  Upon his conversion ,Nee left the Anglican school for Shanghai and worked withDora Yu.At the age of 17,he gave up pursuing a teaching,medical ,or businesscareer and decided to become a full-time evangelist like Dora Yu.He later returnedto Fuzhou and proselytized in the local area.In 1922,he and the two Wang brothers(Wang Zai and Wang Lianjun )baptized each other in the Min River and then launchedthe Christian Assembly in Fuzhou and nearby villages.In 1923,he went to studyChristian doctrines with Margaret E.Barber (1860每1930),known as He Shou‘enin Chinese.Originally an Anglican missionary from England,Barber came to Fuzhouin 1899and taught in a mission school for seven years before returning home.In1911,the year the Qing dynasty was overthrown,Barber,after being influenced bythe Brethren Movement ,returned to China to found a Bible school southeast of Fuzhou.[12]

  The Brethren Movement (or the Plymouth Brethren)was a sectarian movement inearly-nineteenth-century England that sought to recapture the outlook and beliefsof the New Testament church.The founders of the Brethren Movement envisioned theircommunion service as a form of Christian fellowship that transcended denomination.Rejecting priestly hierarchy,they believed in the“priesthood of all believers.”

  They also shared a strong belief in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and renouncedthe possessions ,pleasures ,and status of this world.From the beginning,theBrethren Movement had two different emphases.The leader of one group ,John NelsonDarby (1800每1882),a grandson of British naval commander Lord Nelson Darby ,regarded the Church of England as corrupted by the world and the Nonconformistsas too widely divided.Darby asserted that the assemblies were not to be institutionalchurches led by elders and deacons,but simply to be groups of people separatedfrom the world awaiting the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.These“exclusive ”assemblieswere labeled to outsiders as Exclusive Brethren.The second group ,called ChristianBrethren or “open”Brethren,developed into a small but influential nonconformistmovement.Overall ,what distinguishes the Brethren from other denominations isthe absence of church government beyond the local church.Unconstrained by a hierarchyor centralized organization ,local churches were free to adapt the Christian messageto contemporary needs and the local situations.[13]It was Margaret E.Barber ,a member of the first group ,who introduced to Watchman Nee the ideas and organizationof the Exclusive Brethren.

  Under the influence of Brethren ideas ,Watchman Nee challenged the divisionbetween clergy and laity.Dissatisfied with the hierarchy that he saw in the CatholicChurch and most of the Protestant denominations in China,he rejected the pastoraloffice partly because he felt that the office of the priesthood obstructed believers‘communion with the Christian God and contradicted the biblical teaching that allGod ’s people were priests ,[14]and partly because it kept ordinary Christiansfrom service within the church.His rejection of the pastoral office also stemmedfrom the context of Western imperialism in China.[15]For decades ,Chinese pastorsserved as extensions of Christian missionary enterprises.They were employed byforeign mission societies.Many of the Chinese denominational churches reflectedthis dependent relationship of local workers on foreign missionaries.[16]Therefore,Nee urged Chinese Christians to develop strong lay leaders and to break away fromtheir dependence on foreign missionary enterprises for doctrinal instruction andadministrative support.

  Other features that distinguished Watchman Nee from other Protestant denominationswere his antagonism towards denominational affiliation and his emphasis on the churchas a local entity.To Watchman Nee,the most vivid expression of Christian communitywas the local church(difang jiaohui)or local assembly (difang juhuisuo )。Hesaw a local church or an assembly as“a spiritual body”composed of a group of Christianswho were called out of this world 〞a concept derived from his interpretation ofthe Book of Acts in the New Testament.Strongly in favor of autonomous and independentlocal churches,he maintained that there should be“one church in one locality.”

  [17]He emphasized the necessity to maintain independent local churches becauseon a doctrinal level,a local church could serve as a guardian of Christian teachingand contain heresy within one specific place.At an administrative level,the ideaof“one church in one locality”would discourage denominational competition in thesame area.A church should not represent an area smaller or larger than a city and,therefore ,its jurisdiction should correspond with administrative limits of a city.Only natural barriers and distance justified meeting in two separate churches inthe same area.He saw no religious and practical reason for a group of Christiansin the same locality to divide themselves into different denominations.On the issueof settling intrachurch disputes,he allowed a local church to seek the advice ofanother church but asserted that the final court of appeal remained in the churchwhere the original dispute occurred.[18]What he sought to promote was a locallyautonomous and nondenominational church independent of any external control.

  On the surface,Watchman Nee‘s emphasis on the locality of the church seemsto advocate the idea of a democratic religious body at the grass-roots level.Buthe institutionalized leadership roles as a means to safeguard the local characterof the church.He differentiated apostles ,elders,and deacons in the area of churchleadership.The apostles traveled frequently,preached the Christian message,foundedchurches in different localities,trained elders and church leaders ,and decideddoctrinal matters.[19]Once a church was established,the apostle was expected totransfer the authority to the elders.In this perspective ,apostles were simplywandering evangelists whose ministry and authority lay outside,not inside the localchurch.By comparison ,elders occupied the only office of leadership in the localchurch.To qualify,elders needed to demonstrate spiritual maturity and a strongcommitment to serve in one locality.The emphasis on demonstrated character andexperience,rather than professional skills ,manifested a strong work ethic,whichWatchman Nee acquired from Confucianism and his own strict upbringing.He expectedelders to meet regularly to pray and to counsel church members.While elders attendedto church members ’religious needs ,deacons primarily administrated the church‘s practical needs.[20]He described elders as fathers overseeing God’s household,suggesting that the real authority rested in the hands of elders.This patriarchalimage of elders implied absolute obedience to them from church members and excludedwomen from the position.Nee‘s interpretation of the authority of elders is neitherhistorical nor biblical ,but draws on his Chinese traditional family heritage.[21]

  Calling for a return to the early forms of Christian fellowship as shown inthe Book of Acts,Watchman Nee encouraged Christians to break away from the well-establisheddenominational churches.He believed that the denominations had lost their faithin the biblical truth and become corrupt by their hierarchical structure.Apartfrom converting non-Christians,he“reconverted ”regular churchgoers ,membersof denominational churches,and graduates of prestigious Christian mission schools.Many Chinese Christians left their denominations to join the Little Flock ,to theextent that the Protestant missionaries in Fuzhou often accused the Little Flockof“stealing sheep.”It was indeed very common for Christians of other denominationsto“convert ”to the Little Flock throughout the 1920s and 1930s.As Watchman Neewrote on December 4,1932,“For three years now ,more than ten places in TsaoNing(Zaoning ),of Kiangsu(Jiangsu ),belonging to the [American]Presbyterians,more than ten places in T ‘ai Shuen(Taishun ),of Chekiang (Zhejiang),belongingto the [China]Inland Mission ,a number of places in Fukien(Fujian)of other sects,agreeing in doctrine,have already been amalgamated ,have done away with theiroriginal name ,changed the rules of pastors and leaders,and attached themselvesto the Little Flock.”[22]Given his emphasis on the independence of local churches,many Chinese Christians found it irresistible to affiliate with the Little Flock.Thus,the theme of xenophobia and Western imperialism was a strong element in theseconversions.

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